(Thank you so much to Alexey Gladyshev for transcribing this episode)
[0:00] I'm David Torcivia.
[0:02] I’m Daniel Forkner.
[0:03] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky, the end of the world.
[0:13] But if we learn from all of this, maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be. [SOUNDS OF A NATURAL HABITAT AND BIRD SINGING]
[0:30] You know what we just heard, Daniel?
[0:31] A beautiful songbird, David.
[0:33] Well, yes, that's absolutely true, but it's something more than that. What you actually just heard is the saddest sound ever recorded.
[0:40] It didn’t sound that sad to me, David, quite melodic.
[0:43] Yeah, I mean, I guess not. It's a pretty bird. This is a male ʻōʻō bird making this beautiful song to find a beautiful female to mate with and have children and spread his genes along.
[0:53] Just like any good bird would do.
[0:55] Right, right, and so I mean it's a happy melodic mating song. But what makes this the saddest sound ever recorded is that this ʻōʻō bird was the very last of his species, there are no females coming. This is the last recording that this species will ever leave on this Earth. So, the reason that I played you this sound, Daniel, the reason that we have this very sad, last of its kind of bird singing, looking to continue the proliferation of its species, because today we're going to talking about extinction. This is collapse in its truest form. The loss of huge amounts of life: plant, animal, insect. This is a show focusing on the Sixth Mass Extinction that’s occurring right now all across the world brought primarily on by the actions of all of us.
[1:41] But when you put it like that, David, yeah, that's pretty sad. Both from looking at the individual bird calling out for a mate that will never come, but also from the standpoint of the loss that we as humans will experience never getting to hear this song again, never getting to watch this bird as it hops from limb to limb. And when we think about extinction, I think these are the types of animals or species that come to mind most clearly: the ones that we see, the ones that we think about, the ones that have meaning to us. And there are tons of examples of species right now that are in crisis, that have hit the news. Perhaps one that comes most immediately to mind are the honey bees which for the past 12 years have been declining significantly. Something called colony collapse disorder, and they've been dying off especially in the United States. So much so that for the year between 2016 and 2017 beekeepers called a 33% decline in honey bee colonies, a quote: “good start”, end quote. And that's because as startling as a 33% decline in bee colonies is, losses have been much higher than that.
[2:49] But it's not just tiny insects, Daniel, large animals are also experiencing these huge declines. So right now, the very last herd of caribou to roam the United States is down to just three individuals. And all are female. As a result, this species will soon be gone from the United States. The Southern Mountain caribou used to roam in large populations within Northwest America, but human activities have destroyed their natural habitats. Similar trends are occurring in Canada. Caribou populations are rapidly declining and all but disappeared from Quebec, Alberta and Ontario. The reason they are disappearing is, of course, human activity. Mostly logging and population encroachment. but I think this particular species decline really highlights human short-term thinking. Logging is the principal cause of caribou decline and it's because their main food source is a lichen that only grows in old-growth forest: these really old trees, they're centuries-old. Which I mean is pretty incredible that such a large animal, that mean this is a huge animal, weighs like 600 pounds, has involved for such a tiny plant diet. But what it means is that saving them is not as simple as just planting new trees. We hear this a lot from companies, when they say: “yeah, we cut down some trees but we make up for it by planting some saplings somewhere else in the world”. Well, if we really wanted to save this caribou species, we would have to leave huge swaths of forest alone, completely. And, well, unfortunately, I guess it's not economically viable.
[4:12] Another example, David, that anyone can relate to, whether you live in these areas or not, is the lion, the very iconic king of the jungle. Well, lions used to thrive all over continental Africa excluding the Sahara, they roamed the Middle East, Southern Europe and even as far east as the southern tip of India. Well, today their habitats have shrunk dramatically to just a few small pockets in Central and Southern Africa. But David, this crisis going on right now, this so-called Sixth Mass Extinction, the significance of this event goes so far beyond what we might perceive in these very noticeable animals like the lion or the caribou. It goes deep because these species that are at risk connect ecosystems and those ecosystems interconnect in such a way that it makes modern life possible for humans and so many other things.
[5:09] That's right, Daniel, humans, our civilization, the very world that we live in depends on the success of many of these animals that are right now on the brink of extinction. Or but in some cases revive species that shouldn't exist anymore but are kept alive only by the intervention of human stepping in for the animals that we've killed. But we're getting way ahead of ourselves right here. I didn't understand all of this, how we got here, maybe we should step back, like way back and look at where humans fit into this bigger picture, where we come from and how we interplay with the environment and ecosystems as a whole.
[5:40] That's right, David, let's look at human beings as a species themselves. So, humans emerged about 200,000 years ago in Eastern Africa. We were small, we were fragile, but we found ways to innovate, to adapt and to push past many environmental obstacles until we eventually made homes in virtually every region of the world. And as far as species go our expansion and adaptation may be one of the most remarkable of any other in the history of Earth. In terms of longevity – that story probably won't be remarkable at all. But we will get to that in a little bit. Anyway, we settled all over the world and if that wasn't significant enough, we then learned how to convert stockpiles of concentrated energy, whether those were forests or underground pockets of organic fuel. We turned these into the foundations of civilization and as a result our populations soared, and throughout this process we changed the world. Not only did we transform geography and the composition of the atmosphere, we reorganized the dispersion of species all over the globe: exotic animals hitchhiked aboard our trade ships to eventually disrupt and destroy distant ecosystems. We shifted plants from one place to another for trade and production. And everywhere we went, we encouraged the spread of a few select species well suited for life alongside human civilization. These are cats and dogs, cows and chickens, but also rats and mosquitos. In fact, we should include these species under the umbrella of civilization itself at this point. So not only have humans been wildly successful at expanding their habitat range, we have also expanded the size of our impact on the Earth, and as civilization expands, it constricts the range and populations of everything else, forcing wildlife into smaller and smaller bubbles until[SOUND OF CANDLE BEING PUT OUT] it’s gone.
[7:40] This impact that humans have is remarkable, when you consider just how small we as biological individuals really are. A recent study that was published a couple months ago found that in terms of biomass, that is how much like we weigh when you add up everything, human beings represent just 0.01% of all life on Earth.
[8:00] That's pretty small.
[8:02] Yeah, well, plants are 83% of that: this is trees, this is grass, the crops that we grow. Bacteria which are on everything, well, at all that adds up as small as they are, and bacteria make up 13% of all biomass. But all other life existing outside of this: cats, dogs, whale, cows, fish – all of that is just 5% of this total biomass. [8:26] Despite our insignificant in sheer weight we have completely reorganized life on Earth. Humans have caused wild mammals to decline by 83% and we wiped out 50% of all plants on this planet. Since 1970 alone the number of land animals has declined by 40%. We've lost 4/5 of all freshwater species and we wiped out more fish in terms of biomass than what is currently left in fisheries worldwide. And at the same time, we have expanded those species now integrated within human civilization.
[8:59] Yeah: the cows, the pigs, the chicken. [9:14] I mean, human livestock alone is now over 14 time the biomass of all wild mammals. And these are mostly cows and pigs. And in terms of chickens, well their biomass outweighs all wild birds by a factor of 3.
[9:17] I want to interrupt you for just one second, Daniel, cause I think this is really interesting point. So, some episodes ago at some point we were talking about the Anthropocene, this geological era that we've entered because of the humans’ effect on the planet. And how we would delineate this in terms of this geological record like the physical rocks on the ground as what would future geologists, whatever the species they might be, be able to point you and say: “oh, this is when humanity started”.
[9:41] Well, if the entire era is named after humans – Anthropocene. I imagine it would be something like, I don't know, our contribution to science, our contribution to art, perhaps our ingenuity...
[9:55] These are nice ideas, Daniel, but in that past episode we boil it down to just tiny little carbon nodules from all the fuel that we burn that turn into this mist that is deposited everywhere. But in this episode, we discovered another paper that suggest something maybe even more embarrassing and it's a huge fossil record, the would be left behind in our legacy. And what makes up this fossil record you might ask?
[10:17] Our skulls, our bones that are concentrated in cities all over the world, David.
[10:22] Well not our skulls and bones, but rather the bones of the massive amount of chickens that we grow and kill every single year to support this very large industrial civilization.
[10:34] So you saying, David, that when extraterrestrials visit Earth some millions of years in the future and they look at the geologic record, they will determine that humans or some species like us must have been on the Earth not because of anything that we created but by the sheer amount of chicken bones left in the Earth.
[10:53] Exactly. Either that or maybe the chickens took over the Earth and eventually destroyed themselves from overpopulation. But the reasonable conclusion will probably be like: “oh, some species grew these things as food, disposed of their body and left behind huge amounts of bones that have been fossilized and make a line in the geologic record” – that's our legacy. So, our legacy is unfortunately a legacy of death, at least you geologically speaking.
[11:19] Well, we mentioned that we're in the midst of a mass extinction, the so-called Six Extinction also known as the Holocene Extinction or the so-called Anthropocene Extinction. And when we have studied the species going extinct in the past, well, they were often very unique species to begin with. These are species that only existed within a niche ecosystem, like distant island, mountains or on ice shelfs like polar bears and penguins – these are species that would naturally be fragile to any major shifts in the world because of their niche environments. But we're seeing something very, very different play out today and that is a global biodiversity catastrophe. As the expansion of the civilization, most notably industrial agriculture, and global climate change combines to mark one of the greatest challenges to life going forward the Earth has perhaps ever seen. And so there was a paper that came out in 2017 that tried to shed light on this Sixth Extinction and it had some pretty important things to say.
[12:27] “The likelihood of this rapid defaunation lies in the proximate causes of population extinctions: habitat conversion, climate disruption, overexploitation, toxification, species invasions, disease, and (potentially) large-scale nuclear war—all tied to one another in complex patterns and usually reinforcing each other’s impacts. Much less frequently mentioned are, however, the ultimate drivers of those immediate causes of biotic destruction, namely, human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich. These drivers, all of which trace to the fiction that perpetual growth can occur on a finite planet, are themselves increasing rapidly. Thus, we emphasize that the sixth mass extinction is already here and the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most. All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life”. [13:30] Daniel, we read a lot of academic papers, a lot of journals, a lot of pieces of research for the various episodes that we put together here. And I just want to say: language like this is never in academic papers, this is basically somebody screaming, saying “the end is nigh, why aren't you listening? Look at this thing: we are in the midst of Apocalypse” – this language from researchers in an academic journal is like very, very unusual and we should be paying attention to this.
[13:58] You mean the part where it says that we have 20 to 30 years to address this mass extinction before it's too late?
[14:05] One of many parts that I think that deserve to be called out here. but yeah. I mean, this is serious, serious business.
[14:12] And what I think really stands out about this article is it addresses the fact that when we look at mass extinctions, we make a fatal flaw when we're only looking at species themselves: that's the lion, the caribou. And what the paper highlight is, we find a much more alarming picture when we look at population decline and the extinction of populations themselves, so that's a loss of habitat range, loss of ecosystems and decline in population sizes of species. When you look at it this way you can actually see how extinction can be baked in to a species just like climate well before that very last individual dies off.
[14:53] Daniel, I know we mentioned before “baked in” a couple times. I know I talked about it a lot when we talk about climate change. Maybe we should elaborate on that idea just for one moment.
[15:01] Yeah okay, well I mean I guess the idea is when you look at climate, the idea that a warming effect can be “baked in” basically means that our systems, our global systems, environmental flows – they take a long time to develop. But if a lot of our CO2 for example gets absorbed by the ocean, that's going to have an effect, but it may take several years or even decades or centuries to play out. I mean, think about it: if you have a pot of boiling water and you put an ice cube in – well, the ice cube doesn't melt right away but you know that that process is “baked in” to this, it is going to happen. And so, in the same way that our effects on climate get “baked in” into these systems, these extinctions become inevitable when the various populations of a species become so affected and so fragile that recovery becomes impossible and eventual petering off becomes inevitable.
[15:55] Yeah, and this paper that we just mentioned, well it specifically looked at 27,600 vertebrate species and on a more detailed analysis. documenting the population extinctions between 1900 and 2015 in 177 mammal species, quote “32% of the species in the sample are declining both in population as well as habitat range and 40% of the mammals looked at have been experiencing a 80% decline in habitat range” – all this is leading us very quickly to collapse of ecosystems that we rely on to sustain our civilization, but further it's occurring 1000 times faster than the natural extinction rate, with some groups disappearing much, much, much faster than that as we’ll discuss in just a moment. [16:44] I want to focus on just one concept from this thing we just mentioned here. Where, I mean, this is a show about extinctions, about species that were alive and now no longer are, but that isn't just the, it doesn't just happen, you know, it's not like one day all the animals are here and the next day you wake up and they die. Extinction doesn't occur like that. It's not just the cliff that they'll jump off and they disappear. Extinction is a process that ultimately results in extinction but before that you have population declines, so population is troubled, it's pressured from influences from the outside, whether they're climate, whether it's human – whatever it is. It declines and then at some point as a population declines it becomes more vulnerable to more and more influences that are coming in from outside. And this is the important feedback loop that we really want to get to in this episode, where the more vulnerable population declines that much faster which makes it that much more vulnerable and then at some point it cannot be saved: it falls off a cliff and the next thing you know – it's extinct.
[17:43] And when we talk about declining populations, I mean, there's so many ways it can happen. A simple way to think about it is: if you have two rainforests and they each house a tiger for example and you get rid of one of those rainforests, well, you still have the tiger in the other rainforest, but the range has halved and the population has also halved in proportion. And the population or the number of individuals of this species has also gone down. So now you have less variability in terms of individual species on the Earth, you have a higher chance that any catastrophe of any change in the environment that affects this one rainforest is going to have a larger impact on this species ability to survive. And of course, another component of that is that these habitats themselves provide services called ecosystem services, which we’ll get to in a little bit, that we also rely on. And any decline in those has a tremendous impact on our ability to go forward as a human population.
[18:39] I love it, Daniel, it’s more bad news like always. But researching this episode you came to me at one point, and I think you said like “I'm depressed”, like, I know we talked about a lot of bad news, Daniel, and I know some of these topics are heavy, but this one really got to you. And I think you walked away at the end of this thing telling me that, as big of a problem that climate change is and is as related climate changes to these extensions that are coming up, that we can discuss throughout this episode, you've identified this as the single most critical, most dangerous threat that we are facing collectively as a society. Period. Full stop. Not even close.
[19:14] Yeah, David, that's right. And I think maybe why it depressed me so much as I wasn't expecting it and I have to completely take back the comment I made a couple weeks ago on our recap episode where I said government surveillance was one of my biggest fears. This has replaced it completely and even in terms of climate change I see this loss of species, this loss of biodiversity as the worst thing that could ever have happened. And maybe it seems kind of odd to say this is worse than climate change, how is that possible? But if you could just isolate climate change to a warming atmosphere or rising seas, without all the attendant things that produced it like our pollution and habitat destruction. It is very easy to see how biodiversity could give us a way forward. You see, the diversity of species and ecosystem that we have in our world – that’s information. It’s information that has been assembled over millions, hundreds of millions of years. And specifically, if you look at it broadly, our global diversity is a book a magnificent book in which the secrets of adapting and surviving abound. And this giant book has information on withstanding violent storms, adapting to drought and floods, adapting to extreme heat and cold, how to filter waste, how to heal. And losing species and ecosystems means that we are losing whole chapters of that book that we will never recover. And that's bad for us, I mean, here's an example: 3/4 of our entire food system globally is supported by just a handful of crops and five animal species, which of course themselves, as we've discussed, are propped up by unsustainable industrial inputs like pesticides, nitrogen fertilizer, that is unsustainable and all these types of things – that system is going to fail, there's no doubt about it. But in a world where a diversity of species remain, wild species of plants and animals could take the place of our defunct monoculture systems. Wild species that are suitable for consumption would reveal themselves in places that we would normally consider to dry or too wet, too salty or whatever to grow suitable crops. In other words, we would find a way forward, even if it means on a smaller scale. But that’s only if those wild species survive. Once they're lost, that's it. There's no more. There's nothing left to adapt to our changing world. And those branches extending from the Tree of Life which may have provided us with answers, which took millions of years to develop, won't be there. And so, we too will perish.
[21:51] Okay, Daniel, I mean it's beautiful and it's poetic, and I can feel your passion coming out in this…
[21:56] My depressing poetry.
[21:58] Yeah, the depressing muse of extinction. But one of the criticisms that we get about discussing the Sixth Mass Extinction, about the loss of biodiversity in the world right now is that “Well, you know what? Extinctions happen, it's a natural evolutionary process” and what's more is that these extinctions are cyclical to some extent, you know, like there are. If we're on the sixth mass extinction while they were five before that.
[22:23] That must mean there's one, two, three, four and five, right?
[22:26] Yeah exactly. So, like this is just part of the natural process of Earth. That's something that we should be expecting to happen. And if animals cannot adapt to this changing world now, the world climate change, the world of humanity, to the Anthropocene. Well, then they don't have a place in it, or so the argument goes.
[22:42] This comes up a lot in conversations, not just with extinction but also climate change like “well, you know, the earth goes through cycles and periods of extinction, so it's normal!”
[22:51] I swear to God, if I hear somebody say Maunder Minimum one more time…
[22:54] Yeah, okay, David, whatever that is. But this idea that “oh, the Earth goes in cycles so it's normal”. I'm not really sure how this just became accepted. This idea that if something has occurred before it can't be novel or significant to us now. Think about this, David, the first mass extinction occurred 450 million years ago. And humans have been around 200,000 years. So, to put that in perspective: if that first extinction occurred a thousand years ago, that means humans have been on this Earth for 162 days, give or take. So yeah, if you're looking at the history of the Earth on a billion-year time scale, I suppose mass extinction and climate change does seem pretty normal. But to use that as justification for destroying ourselves makes no sense. We might as well just detonate every single nuclear bomb on Earth all at once on the grounds that it would be less catastrophic than that asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. I mean, that cyclical right? What do we have to lose?
[23:52] I have, I have no response to that.
[23:54] But to get back to that time line real quick. I mean, we as humans are witnessing an existential event play out right now in front of our eyes that is so exceedingly rare. It occurs once every 50 to a 100 million years or so. And we are the direct cause. So, David, tell me again why I should be concerned with shareholder value and market returns?
[24:15] One second. I mean, I want to pull out real quick and get rid of all the morality in like how fucked we are because of the things that we are going to talk about in this episode with the impending effects of this mass extinction.
[24:27] What do you mean the morality?
[24:28] Well, whether it's right or wrong. But I just want to know for one second how like metal it is that humans in just a couple hundred thousand years, I mean, we've made plenty of animals extinct like the giant sloth in America, the woolly mammoth. Like we killed those but that wasn't enough, in the past thousand years, give or take, with the real production of civilization, then really honestly in the past like 100, maybe 50 years we are bringing on an extinction. This is the same type of thing that like an asteroid does and here we are doing it single-handedly just because we got to drive our car to the grocery store, buy some plastic wrap.
[25:04] Or buy an exotic frog as we’ll discuss.
[25:07] Yeah, so we can have a pet frog in our apartment on the other side of the world. That is objectively, I think, a really good measure of how harmful we can be and how much power humanity has even if it's for really terrible, horrible thing, but anyway.
[25:22] Listener, take from that what you will. But I mean I agree, it is pretty fascinating just the scope of impact we as humans have had on the Earth.
[25:31] Like nothing in a history of anything like fuck shit up as well as we do. That is like if we've got one skill that is definitely it.
[25:39] But it's also hard to be proud of it in any way, when you realize that we've done it accidentally and we've done it basically through extremely short-term short-sighted processes that we didn't take the time to understand. And even as we are...
[25:53] Just imagine if we've been trying.
[25:55] Yeah, just imagine if we've been trying. And also, very unimpressive about this is: as it's going on, we still struggle to even recognize it. As destructive as we are, we're not even aware of it. But to get back to the show, David.
[26:08] Yeah, okay Daniel, we got off on like a pretty big tangent there…
[26:10] Metal tangent.
[26:12] So let’s nail in on a little bit of these facts here and explain the ecosystems and a biodiversity and why they're so important and so fragile and why this mass extinction that's currently ongoing is such a big factor to them.
[26:25] We have to understand ecosystems and the important role they play to really grasp how catastrophic loss of species really is. And there are a variety of ecosystems in our world. You know, we have the grasslands, forests, various aquatic ecosystems. And each one of these are interconnected. They provide benefits and “services” that we humans take advantage of. And I think calling these “services” actually undersells how we rely on ecosystems. Because when you look at what we get from the environment, you quickly realize that the answer is, well, everything. So conceptually these ecosystem services are grouped into four broad categories. You have provisioning services which is probably what comes first to mind in terms of our food or water but also includes things like medicines, energy and even genetic diversity which we benefit from.
[27:19] The next category includes supporting services like the production of oxygen and the formation of soil – things we’ve talked about in the past with Chris in “What We Reap” episode a long time ago. Another one is it is regulating services. So these process waste, they absorb climate change, they filter our streams and rivers, they to keep pathogens in check, pollinate flowers and purify the air.
[27:41] Well, David, just to pause real quick. Since you're from New York, I think I read that, if we want to turn this into a money conversation, I think New York City actually spent recently 2 billion dollars to protect a watershed upstream of the main city. And as expensive as that might sound the result is that in protecting this watershed, it very naturally purifies the water and it cost a lot less to treat once it reaches the city, and if you wanted to replace this conserving process with a water treatment plant that would have cost 10 billion dollars or five times more.
[28:17] Yeah, New York benefits very much from these natural systems and it gives us some of the best water in the country, water that's famous, and many people say it’s why New York bagels and NY pizza taste so good. So, thanks to these natural regulating services.
[28:32] But of course you can't reduce these services to simply economics, because the last service that we get is cultural. This is the pleasure we get from climbing a mountain or the spiritual fulfillment, or our scientific discovery. And it is through the combination of all these services that we as humans survive and thrive. And it is those services that are disappearing on the heels of this extinction event. We are quite literally sawing off the branch that we perch on.
[29:00] Human history is dominated by the idea of progress. It's a natural step from one thing to the next and it's inevitable: we're always moving forward to bigger and better things. But maybe our idea of progress is wrong? Historically, progress for us has meant more cities, more houses, taming the wild by turning a swamp into a golf course, moving a rural farmer from the land to the city. But this view of progress is misguided and actively harming us when the things we destroy in the name of progress are the very things that we depend on for survival: these wetlands, these swamps, forests, animals and so on. In our short-sightedness to move forward to more visible steps of construction, of development, to things we can point to and say “this is progress”, that we can measure and chart and say “look at how quickly were moving forward”, we've lost sight of the systems that enable all of this. We’ve risked the systems that enable all of this and in doing so have threatened our very existence.
[29:55] That theme that we've hit on in many episodes is how our ideas of progress are misguided, and clearly this is probably the greatest example of that. These losses of ecosystems, these mass extinctions and the services we get from ecosystems – it's all related to this concept of biodiversity, which is really was fueling all of this and which we are actively destroying all over the world. For example, the last 2 years saw more deforestation than ever with 50% more annual loss of trees in 2016 and 2017 than in 2015. The area being lost translates to trees being destroyed at 40 football fields every single minute, which, honestly, is incomprehensible to me. And this is a bad thing for biodiversity because forests are where we find 80% of land animals and plants. So, what is biodiversity? I mean it's obviously a diversity of something, but there are many layers to that.
[30:52] Biodiversity is made up by a lot of different concept, is not just “look how many animals are there are here!”. It's a lot more nuanced than that.
[31:00] There's a chicken over there, there's a cow over here, there's a pig over there.
[31:03] Yeah, it’s like “look at his petting farm, we’re so biodiverse!”. No, no, it's much, much deeper than that. I mean, yes, all the different species is definitely part of it but it's not just how many species there are, how many different species but it's the individual populations themselves. Are there unique populations all around the world of these species? In your example earlier, Daniel, there is a rainforest here with an animal there, another rainforest with that same animal and this means that there's genetic diversity in these different population – that's another layer of this biodiversity.
[31:32] And also ecosystems: if we have a river and then we have a mountain and then we have a grassland – that's biodiversity as well. As each of those ecosystems is going to host a plethora of species.
[31:43] And even more, like, just the cultures of these animals. And I know it’s weird to apply that word “culture” to an animal, many can think that’s a very human concept. But the same species in different areas will often have different ways of interacting with each other, different customs, and again, that’s another weird word to use, different behaviors than other populations. And this biodiversity means that all of these things are important in developing a worldwide unified healthy world of ecosystem.
[32:09] And often times we don't even understand how this biodiversity plays out. In fact, saying we often don't understand is actually an understatement. I would say we really just don't understand at all. I mean, we might look at a species in the jungle like a monkey for example and we think “oh it's the top of the food chain, if it disappeared that would be tragic but it wouldn't really affect the ecosystem”. But what we don't realize is that that species is an important seed dispersal and it's responsible for upkeeping many plant species because it picks a flower or picks of fruit and eats it and then go somewhere else, and the seed gets dropped in an important place. And I also read somewhere, David, that there's a parasite, so parasites are actually really important in ecosystems, there are parasites that will latch onto amphibians, the amphibian for some reason in response to this parasite decides to jump into the water to cleanse itself and in jumping into the water it becomes food for some aquatic species. So, there are so many ways that species interact, ecosystems interact and that is what biodiversity is and that's what makes up that book of information that I mentioned earlier.
[33:16] Actually, well, speaking of parasites. These are one of the more threatened groups right now with up to a third of all parasites at risk of extinction from climate change and other factors. And at first we might seem sort of excited about this fact: nobody likes parasites, at least the way that we think about them.
[33:33] Tapeworms, lice, such a thing? Oh, you're telling me those are endangered? Sounds good to me.
[33:39] Yeah, I mean, that's what we thought initially when we started looking into this. But what we don't realize is that in many ecosystems parasites make up 80% of the food links between species. So that means you need these parasites to transfer energy and nutrition from one animal to another. Like that example, the frog jumping in the water. So wiping out these parasites means the ecosystem collapses. But another side of this is that a diversity of parasites keeps each other in check through competition. And so, wiping out the majority of them could give rise to rapid expansion of parasites that now have an unprecedented opportunity to flourish, which could be bad if the ones that survive happen to be the human flesh-eating type for example.
[34:21] Yeah, that that wouldn't be good. But there's something I want to highlight about that, David. When you said that parasites play an important role in ecosystem, transferring energy from one species to another, this is such an important point about why this extinction is such a problem. Because I guess when we think about animals going extinct, we might point to one and we might point to another and we get this idea that “hey if we have a thousand animals and 40% of them go extinct, well, you know, pick 400 of them by random, they're gone and we’re left with the rest”. Because there are global forces and trends that are driving extinction, these forces are going to target species that are either similar in terms of genetic similarity or similar in terms of how they operate or where they live, but it also means it targets species based on function. It's not necessarily a random dispersion of species that are going extinct. So to make an analogy here about what that would mean if extinction was something that was affection civilization. What are some of the functions we might think of in terms of the forces that maintain civilization? What are those functions, David?
[35:30] I just pick some stuff out here, but: education, food production, transportation, energy production – you know, very general large-scale things here, but.
[35:43] Exactly, David. Those are functions. So, imagine we wake up one day and all the sudden, the species under the transportation family group that makes up civilization is gone. We have no more roads: they're all gone. And more than that: they're never coming back. There's nothing we can do to get them back. Imagine the effect that would have on civilization. Or imagine we wake up one day and there are no more electricians, this group of people that serve this role in civilization, they are just gone. No more lights, no more power, no more anything dealing with that. This would have a dramatic effect on our ability to survive. Well, that is that is what we are doing to these ecosystems: we’re taking out functions. When things go extinct that serve an important role or link in these systems, those ecosystems collapse, they can't function, and so those services that we relied on, they too disappear.
[36:30] Daniel, well, I think there is no more visible part of this like very important and connecting creature of these ecosystems than insects. We started the show off talking about honey bees and then we all know this example of a very important insect in terms of our food production. We depend on these bees to pollinate our flowers, our food, our crops so that we have something to eat. Without them this pollination process really falls apart. And, I mean, there are other creatures that will pollinate, moths and things, but honey bees, other types of bees are very important part of this process. Without them industrial agriculture might not work at all.
[37:05] I have to admit, throughout my life I've been a bit biased against our insect friends for a long time, you know, I don't crush them when I see them or anything like that. I just mean emotionally I guess I've kind of been a little bit not very fond of them. So I used to not look forward to summer, even though I love the sun, mostly because I knew that, hey, when summer came around I'd have to deal with a lot more mosquitoes, there’d be spiders crawling into my room and cockroaches and all that stuff. But now after researching this topic and realizing how much we are losing and how important they are I feel like I'm aware of a loss of something that I never really appreciated and I have to admit, it makes me a little sad. And so you mentioned, insects are valuable and there's a number of ways that they are: pollination of some of our crops, like you said, without these insects we wouldn't have chocolate, for example, insects provide food for birds, bats, amphibians.
[38:00] You know what I do like, Daniel? And I have to defend myself here like I love vanilla. Everyone's always like “oh, don’t be vanilla”, like yes, I like vanilla a lot. It's a very complicated flavor.
[38:10] You know, David, vanilla is actually one of the most complex flavors in the world.
[38:14] Yes that's my go-to defense every time.
[38:17] Which is why it's in so many things. I mean, that's the whole point. That it's the reason why vanilla is everywhere is because it's so good.
[38:23] I just have superior taste buds, I can appreciate all the different notes in vanilla. But I think it plays really well into this conversation because the vanilla plant itself is wholly dependent on a bee called a vanilla bee for its pollination. Except the problem is we, oops, killed the vanilla bee. It died like a hundred and something years ago, we wiped it out, it's extinct now. So now all vanilla plants are manually pollinated by people, mostly Madagascar. Somebody's out there with little brush moving the pollen from one flower to another and that's the only reason we have vanilla today.
[38:56] That's crazy to me, that’s the only way we have the spice or flavor that's super expensive. Which I guess that it kind of explains how expensive it is, although I'm sure it's not as expensive as it could be because I doubt that labor that's manually pollinating that flowers getting paid what perhaps they should. But, you know, insects play a really important role, that's the point. They also fertilize our soil, they degrade waste, they decompose dead animals, they control pests that eat our crops and we use them for the discovery of medicines and applications. I mean, there's a new wind turbine design that’s out and floating about that was designed with the way dragonflies interact with the air. And it’s expected to provide a 30% efficiency boost to wind energy production because of this design. And a fungus that interplays with a beetle was discovered which kicked off modern transplant surgery. It wasn't possible to do surgery transplant before the discovery of this insect-related fungus, because the body would naturally reject any new organ, and it was only through this fungus that we could figure out how to repress the body's immune response to these foreign organs. So, I guess the point is we need these insects.
[40:08] But unfortunately, these insects all around the world are in trouble. We really saw this brought to life last year in a study that just came out and it looked at the insect populations in Germany for the past 27 years. And what was interesting about this is these insects’ censuses were done predominantly by citizen scientists, these aren't paid researchers going out doing a long-term study because there is no market for this study. Nobody wants to pay for this so people who care instead about the environment and these insects took it out their time to measure population of these insects over two and a half decades. And what they found over this 27-year period, that the population of insects declined by 75%. That means a population of insects alive today is just a quarter of the size that they were just 27 years ago.
[40:54] Real quick, David, there are two things that really stand out to me concerning this German study. And one is the fact that it's remarkable at all and the other is the way it was carried out like you mentioned. And so the fact that this study came out last year and…
[41:08] It shocked scientists, like they had no idea that this was coming out. The whole scientific was like “holy shit!”.
[41:14] Right. And to me that's a little alarming because it means we're not doing a good job tracking these very important changes all over our world. This is one study in Germany that looked at like a handful of insect species, and it shocked the world. I mean in Europe alone there are over 30,000 insect species and in Germany only 37 of these, 0.12% of all the insect species are closely tracked. That's alarming. And we don't have these naturalists, biologists, we don't have people studying this like you said cause there's no market for it. And speaking about markets: the other thing that's remarkable to me about this study is that it was made possible by these volunteers. We talked last week about intellectual property and how it holds back academic research and discovery. I think this is a great example of why that is, why we're holding back discovery and research through this intellectual property that puts academic research behind paywalls. Because innovation and this value of research really takes off when you have public access and participation. Because a few scientists, as well trained as they are, they can't tackle this job of monitoring all the species that we need to keep track of.
[42:24] Well this is also getting into the conversation of business and motivation and profit and academics – and that is very much its own episode that we will absolutely get into, this is a really important topic that we’re not seeing enough attention being paid to. Except for those in the academic fields who were complaining about this constantly. But we really want to talk about it in-depth and I don't want to get bogged down right now with this this idea, but…
[42:48] Okay, so back to insects. I mean, this isn't happening just in Germany but it's happening all over the world.
[42:52] That's right. In the United States monarch butterflies have all but disappeared. So there used to be huge migrations of tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies. It was an event that people would go out and watch it. But the numbers of monarch butterflies have dwindled in the past few decades, they are just a small fraction of what they used to be in the earlier part of the century. A 2014 Stanford study looked at invertebrate species worldwide and found a 45% decline over the past 40 years alone all over the world.
[43:22] In a Bavarian Nature Reserve researchers have witnessed a 40% decline in moth species which highlights how these losses are occurring even in areas that are closely protected.
[43:33] We want to highlight moths again, this is one of these animals that we think like “ooh, it’s just an ugly butterfly”, but moths are extremely important pollinators, just as much snow as bees with get most of the credit for pollination, but moths are a huge component of this as well.
[43:46] And real quick, I mean, in terms of pollinators there so many species: bats are pollinators, these butterflies, flies can be pollinators, birds are pollinators – there is such a diversity of them.
[43:57] This is happening all around the world, that's happening in Europe, it is happening in the United States, it's happening in the remote forest of South America, of Asia. This is a worldwide problem, the symphonies of these insects, the noises of the crickets and grasshoppers that we all are used to falling asleep at night to, well, they are slowly getting quieter, they are slowly disappearing because this is a worldwide insect apocalypse.
[44:21] And the causes of these declines in insects generally come down to a number of factors, most notably probably our industrial agriculture, our monoculture systems which converts very diverse ecosystems and habitats all over the world into what is effectively green concrete with no life, as it converts ponds and all types of different habitats for insects into this just row of pesticide dependent crops. And these pesticides, these herbicides, they themselves are killing off large number of insect population.
[44:54] I want to focus on monoculture to just for one second and to understand why this is such a huge problem. Whereas yes, we're losing a sort of environment and ecosystem that would have had a lot of different diverse life, but we're replacing it with more life and it's like: flowers are the same, that should be a problem, right? But the problem is whereas before a field will bloom in all sorts of different times over the season: some would flower in the spring, some in the late spring, some in early summer, some in late summer, some in the beginning of autumn. And it goes through, so there's always a source of food for the various animals that live in this environment. A monoculture field in contrast flowers once, and after that flowering is done there is no more food, potentially for many miles. And that distance is too far for an insect to go out and search for something to eat and they instead starve to death. This is one of the biggest problems with monoculture and it's something that it's just not easy to fix. Monoculture may in fact be completely incompatible with insect biodiversity. And of course, insects are very important link in the food chains: yes, they are important for pollinating our food but also as acting as food for many other animals, for birds, for small mammals – all sort of things that depend on these insects for nutrition. And when you get rid of the insects: because they're starving, because they have nothing to eat – well, the rest of the ecosystem collapses as well.
[46:09] Industrial agriculture just from so many angles is such an interesting and depressing topic. And you mentioned the monarch butterflies disappearing in North America. Well, even with our monoculture systems of the past we still had a lot of monarch butterflies because we had milkweed growing up in our crops which could still support the butterflies. But as we have gotten more “efficient” with our agriculture practices and we now have roundup-ready soy and roundup-ready crop that denies milkweed from being in these crop systems – well, there goes the monarch butterflies.
[46:43] I was always, when I was growing up, taught that milkweed was a weed, it's in the name, it’s something you don't want. When you see it growing: “oh, we got to get rid of milkweed” and you pull it out. And it's no wonder when everyone is doing that to the milkweed that grows in their houses, in their yards that there is no more milkweed left and there are no more monarch butterflies – we get rid of their food and then the monarch disappears and we are like “what happened?”, I mean.
[47:07] You know, in episode 16 where we sat down with Christy Alessandro, a small organic farmer, he talked about this: the diversity of species that he cultivate on his farm and how that removes the necessity for pesticides in these things, because the plant species and these interactions take care of it themselves. But you know, David, there's a lot of people that liked what Chris was talking about. But at the end of the day not everyone can be a farmer, not everyone can have a farm and so, people are still searching for ways to respond to these problems in a way that they can actually do. And we were curious what kind of things can we do as individuals to be a part of solutions for these problems and, you know, normally we talked about what can we do at the very end of these episodes. But because this show is so depressing, this particular topic, I think, this is a good time to introduce in the middle of the show, someone who is having a direct impact to combat the Sixth Extinction and perhaps provide a little bit of encouragement for something that we all can do in our lives. And for that we turn to Atlanta resident Andrew White.
[48:10] Andrew, thanks for joining us.
[48:12] Yeah sure, thanks for inviting me.
[48:14] So, Andrew, you have a home in the metro Atlanta area and in front yard you have a beautiful garden, it's really nice: lots of flowers blooming, there are tomatoes growing, in the spring you had some fruits. Can you tell us a bit about your garden? I hear you have a dog in the background too.
[48:30] Yeah, that's my Sugar, so she makes any noise – that’s just she likes to talk sometimes. Yeah, I mean, it got started, you know, as a personal project, as a way to kind of combat the suburban lawns and shrubs that you see over most of suburban Atlanta. I wanted to try and create something that would give everybody, well not everybody, you now, but everybody meaning all the insects and little critters a place to live. And to open up my yard for a diverse array of species too, to make them home.
[49:05] Tell us a little bit about some of the insects and critters that visit your garden.
[49:09] Yeah, I select plan specifically for their ecological value as well as their ornamental value. One of the plants that I have is passiflora incarnata and it's more commonly known as the passion flower or maypops. And it’s happens to be the only host plant for the gulf fritillary caterpillar, so.
[49:33] Which turns into a butterfly?
[49:36] Yes, that’s right. The Gulf fritillary is a butterfly and it's the only plant on which that butterfly can lay her eggs and produce offspring, it's the only plant that a caterpillar would eat. And so, it's always a joy to see, you know, that those plants her, and, you know, I've got milkweed for monarch butterflies, we’ve got mountain mint which is just absolutely covered with all kinds of bees and wasps and serpent flies, all kinds of things.
[50:02] Yeah that's actually something that really stuck out to me, so I grew up in Georgia and I remember as a kid seeing butterflies and bumblebees. but growing up after while I guess I got I took them for granted, I saw them less and less and walking through your garden I noticed just how many of these insects we are surrounded by. And it's stuck out to me as being unusual I guess because I just got used to not seeing them around so much. I mean, you've got tons of bumble bees on your lavender plant, you've got so many different kinds of butterflies and that one plant you mentioned with all the different kinds of bees, I mean, it looks like a swarm just like 24/7.
[50:38] Yeah, I think a neighbor of mine must have a beehive in their backyard and it seems as though the entire hive is over here just enjoying the mountain mint plant. But yeah, I mean, you're not wrong, it's definitely counter to the prevailing aesthetic of, you know, a nice mown, you know, one species of turf grass lawn which you have to apply a lot of chemicals and pesticides to keep it that way, you know. The kind of gas station plants as I call them, like azaleas, and not talking about Native azaleas, I'm talking about exotic ornamental plant that people put in their yard because that's what's available in the trade right now and that’s what you see in your local hardware store or grocery store. They are easily accessible, and so people plant them. But with a little extra effort you can find places that sell more native plants that aren’t raised with pesticides and things: through local plant societies or nature centers and things like that.
[51:40] So it's important to have native plants in order to get those pollinators into you yard, right? Do you still have pollinators that visit your exotic plants?
[51:49] Yes, so you mention the lavender earlier, lavender is not a native plant of Georgia, but it does have value in terms of its nectar, it’s a food source for bees, and in particular you noticed the bumblebees. So, there are some exotic ornamental plants that do have ecological value, but what's lacking is plants that are food sources for those larval stages. People used to plant plants and they saw value in plants as being pest free, meaning that you didn't find caterpillars on them, like, chewing ugly holes in your leaves. What that does is that it denies food sources to the larval stages of the butterflies and things that you actually do want in your yard. And so that leads to population decline and it also leads to a decline in the number of flying insects which leads to a decline in the food supply for charismatic macro fauna like birds and bats and other things that people do want to have in their yard.
[52:52] Yeah, I guess it just occurred to me that you mentioned your garden as kind of an alternative to the very just bland basic lawn that so many people have in their homes, but in those same lawns they sometimes have bird feeders as a way to try to attract birds. But I guess what you're saying is if you just have a better and more native diverse yard in the first place with all this plants that insects thrive on, it is going to attract those birds very naturally.
[53:16] That's right. Yeah, I mean, one of the classic examples would be Echinacea purpurea. Their seed heads, if you leave them on through the winter, are actually food source for native goldfinches. You'll see it in my garden here over the winter months. If you don't cut down: that’s the other thing people do is they, you know, after the perennial plants have gone dormant, they cut off all the old foliage and get rid of it, put it in bags, they rake up their leaves and stuff them in the bags and haul them away – but that stuff is actually super important to the whole ecosystem. Like fallen leaves provide cover and forage for insects to overwinter. And a lot of times different Lepidopteras like moths and butterflies, their pupae, their cocoons will overwinter on those dead plants that most people cut down. So, if you just kind of let them be and cut them back in the spring you could preserve a lot of different life in your garden.
[54:16] So you’ve mentioned a lot of species names. It’s clear that you know a lot about gardening or seems like to me. But one of the things that I find fascinating about your garden is that you maintain this at the same time you have a full-time job, you have an active social life like, you have hobbies outside of this. So, for someone out there who may like the idea of cultivating this native garden that can attract these species but feels that it's something that they don't have enough time to do or they're not an expert in this, what can you say to that person?
[54:46] I can say, I would just say that…
[54:49] I mean, how much time do you spent on your garden?
[54:51] Maybe like, I guess it depends on the week, maybe like an hour a week most.
[54:55] That's very low. We spend more time mowing our yards.
[54:59] Yeah, that's true, yeah. I mean, I guess it depends on your tolerance, right, for how messy you allow your garden to get. I like a messy garden because a messy harden to me means garden that's full of life. And I don't see it as messy, I see it as welcoming to variety of different species and so it does seem like Americans are kind of obsessed with creating an environment that's sterile and clean, and neat as a pin, and nothing out of place, you know. What if we just let go of that for a second and think differently about how we manage our landscapes so that we’re providing a place for all the critters to live, you know. I mean, I think it's important to understand that the wild creatures in our world have very few places left where they can live. That's why I do everything to make my yard a place that is welcoming of everything whether it's a garter snake or chipmunk, or beetles, or butterflies, all kinds of bees, even yellowjackets – I don't bother them, you know? And it's all just part of a bigger picture, right? One of the things that people do in their yards that I think they should stop doing is spraying for mosquitoes. Yeah, that's a huge problem because those pesticides that you spray on your lawn, they don't just affect just this one species. So if you're spraying for mosquitoes, that same pesticide is going to kill other insects that, you know, that we rely on for things like food.
[56:35] But what about the mosquitoes themselves cause this is something I've heard a lot: “oh, you know, mosquitoes, they don't have any ecological value”. Do you think there's truth to that or are they perhaps a food source for something that's very important?
[56:46] Oh yeah, they're absolutely a food source for all kinds of different animals, birds, amphibians. Listen, I mean, it's all part of a bigger picture and if you start spraying pesticides to kill things like, yellowjackets or mosquitoes, you're impacting all these other things that you may not even realize. So, a lot of things that people kind of, you mentioned before: “Oh, I used to see all these bees and butterflies”. But one of the things I've heard from a lot of people is that there used to be so many more fireflies around, right? Their populations have really been decimated, people don't see as many of those as they used to, like when they were growing up. And, you know, with each subsequent generation we kind of produce a new normal with what people can expect.
[57:29] So, I guess, if you're growing up today you just think this lack or whatever the amount of insects or lady bugs or fireflies that you see, you just think that's normal.
[57:38] Right, yeah. But it's not, it's a product overapplication of pesticides, overapplication of herbicides and lack of native species, this kind of devotion, I guess, to this aesthetic of…
[57:54] Sterile environment.
[57:54] Right, yeah.
[57:57] So, anyone out there who wants to get into gardening a little bit more, are there any resources you could recommend to someone who's totally new to this?
[58:05] Yeah! The first thing I will say is that you should probably research, there are probably native plants societies in your area that you can join, you can go to a meeting. I know here in Georgia they do plant rescues. So they'll go to a site that's about to be developed and they'll go and they'll dig out all of the native plants that are growing there and bring them back and either sell them at an annual fundraising sale or they all put them in their own yard. So organizations like that would be a great way to get started, meet a group of like-minded people and it's so much fun too, to like just learn about this kind of stuff and to see the results in your own yard. If you are more bookish, you can try one of these books, the kind of the recognized authority on this matter is Douglas Tallamy and he has a book called “Bringing Nature Home” which is a great resource for people who are interested in understanding which plants attract which species of insects and pollinators. And then the other one that I really like, but that’s a little bit more recent is called “The Humane Gardener” by Nancy Lawson and it's a more sharing the philosophy of creating a space that all of the creatures can live in.
[59:19] We can make both of them to the website, so definitely check those books out! Andrew, we appreciate you coming on and I think what we all should do is just be thinking about how we can be welcoming to all species. I really liked what you said about that and having less of the sterile mindset I think are two very important mindsets we need going forward. [BOTH LAUGHING]
[59:38] Yeah, I do too. And you don't need a lot of land to do it, you don't need a lot of ground: you can do it in a pot – put a couple of pots on your fire escape, if that’s all that you have.
[59:50] Thanks for having me.
[59:50] Thanks again, Andrew
[59:52] That's such a great interview, Daniel, I think I learned a lot from that.
[59:56] But one thing I want to rant on just really quickly is lawns. Like I really have this passion for hating on lawns, maybe because I grew up in the suburbs and I really always hated mowing my lawn. So maybe it's like a residual sort of hatred. But the idea of a lawn is so ridiculous, and it’s also hilarious. If you can type into Google like “history of lawns” you find all these hilarious histories of the lawn from lawn care websites, from companies that grow, like, grass seeds and shit like that. And they all talk about this like long amazing history about how the lawn changed the world and made it a better place to be in. And let me offer quickly an alternate perspective of that?
[1:00:31] Okay, David. I can see that you're hotly passionate about this lawn topic.
[1:00:36] So, I'm sorry, I'm going to derail our extinction episode for one second just to rant on lawns because I wanted to do an episode on lawns but I don't think I can drag it out quite that long, plus nobody wants to hear that. So, let me do that just really quick. Lawns were never practical. Mowing that stuff is difficult especially without some sort of mechanical operation. If you don't have a lawn mower mowing the lawn by hand by scythe is a very labor-intensive process. The other alternative is to have some sort of animal: a goat or something to trim your lawn all the time. That's also impractical and doesn't look so good, it's not even.
[1:01:08] Real quick, David, I think before you continue for any of our listeners outside the United States perhaps we should clarify what a lawn is. So you have a house and then you have several acres or an acre, or half an acre, or whatever it is in a subdivision of just green grass: no plants, maybe you have a couple like up against the side of your house for decoration. But the majority of your land, associated with your house is just a very short green grass that you cut down with a lawnmower every week so that it stays nice and pretty.
[1:01:39] Yeah, just lines and lines of green grass. Especially if you are in the South, it is often times brown grass by the end of summer because it's too hot. It's the typical suburban idea, and a lot of these lawn websites will point out “part of the American dream”. But originally the lawn, the idea of the lawn does not come from the United States though the popularization of it probably did, but instead rises from the kings of Europe, so these dukes, these kings, these lords in England and in France especially, especially with the relandscaping of Versailles. They had so much money and so much labor, and were so ridiculous with the way they apply these things, they thought “what is the most ridiculous way I can landscape my property?”. And of course, a perfectly flat, perfectly manicured, very short amount of grass, which was a novelty, was the most ridiculous thing they could come up with and they're like “of course this will show everyone how fabulously wealthy I am”. And so the lawn was born, they would have their servants out there with a scythe cutting it down every day. That, I mean, imagine trying to cut your lawn with a scythe – that is labor intensive and that highlights just how wealthy these people were with constantly just teams mowing this lawn all day every single day. They invented lawn sports to go along with it because it wasn't just enough to have the lawn, you had to show it off to other people, so you have lawn sports, they invented polo, bowling, tennis, whatever and introduced the lawn into popular aristocratic society. [1:02:59] Let’s fast-forward a little bit. In the 1830s some guy came up with the mechanical lawn mower which is a modified carpet cutter and that totally changed lawns forever. Now people who couldn't afford teams of servants or didn't want goats running around in front of the yard all the time could keep a lawn and actually keep it short and trim like the way it's supposed to be to show off your fabulous wealth. The lawn made the jump from these aristocratic lords in Europe, in France to the United States because of the influences of namely two people: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who both in the construction of their fabulously large estates. where they had huge teams of slaves able to keep these estates trim and looking nice, decided that they were also going to take this lawn because they had all this labor and space, and introduced lawns to the United States and that's what happened. So, Monticello, Mount Vernon were introduced to have lawns because they had the slave labor capable of keeping it trim and looking nice to show off their fabulous wealth in their new nation.
[1:03:57] New house, new nation, new lawn.
[1:04:00] Then we saw the introduction of the idea of a lawn as a public space. So, people like the Olmsted brothers who famously designed Central Park, Prospect Park here in New York as well as things like Piedmont Park down in Atlanta that unify us here Daniel. They really introduced the idea of the public park and a huge component of these parts were large field of grass where people could gather for sports, they could gather for just lounging around, sitting around. And this brought the idea of the lawn to the people's mind as a public space. [1:04:27] So at the time houses were designed, at least in the United States, in the tradition of the European style which was for privacy: in a front yard you’d have a small garden, in the backyard you would have a lawn-like area where you can recline or do whatever you wanted. But people wanted to change that and they wanted their front yards become this public space just like what they saw at these parks. And it’s really kicked off with the introduction of the automobile. Houses started to be built farther back from the road and people would plant these long green yards, because they thought it was pretty from when you drive past it. And it gave their house some more welcoming feel, even though you were in a walled off box. So traditionally you would have been able to just reach out and say hey to your neighbor, but now because you're driving by the lawn would make it look more welcoming. That was the idea at the time. I think a garden now feels much more welcoming than a lawn but times change. So World War I happened, World War II happened, people shifted their lawns back to gardens because they needed the additional food, because it was more responsible. But then as GI started coming back from WWII everything changed. With the development of the first two planned communities. This were the first subdivisions that gave birth to the suburbs that cover most of this country today and there's nothing more iconic in these subdivisions, in these planned communities that the small house, the white picket fence and the green lawn between the two. [1:05:39] The American dream got tied up with the idea of the well-kept green lawn. Because the designers of these early communities realize that lawns yes, were associated with these very wealthy aristocratic people. And if they could take this idea and instead put it on these small houses for low-income blue-collar workers, that they can give that impression of success, and we continue that to today. Everyone sitting out here in the suburbs like they are fucking British lords looking over their green grass, spraying it, yelling at their neighbor because they didn't cut their grass, and now the crabgrass is getting into their front lawn. Like this is the community that we created. Lawns, I've seen more arguments over lawns in the homeowner associations than anything else in the neighborhood. This thing that's supposed to be this public space, this thing that is like highlighted by the labor of how much work it is to keep looking clean. I mean it's crazy. It’s a huge waste of resources, of water especially in places like Las Vegas, in California. And I think they look ridiculous too, I mean, I would much rather see garden… I'm getting way off topic, I'm like really passionate about this, but lawns…like I'm way off, Daniel, you got to bring me in here. Lawns, man.
[1:06:43] Lawns indeed, David. I mean, that's such a fascinating story to me. It's always so interesting to learn the origins of cultural habits and social norms that we take for granted now. And in that context of learning about these things: the mass extinction, the loss of biodiversity – yeah now when I look at a lawn, I see it as a completely ridiculous and wasteful thing, but maybe it requires you to learn about the origins of the things to see what's really going on to have that perspective. There's something else that Andrew mentioned that really stuck out to me and that's how we become normalized to these things whether that's Lawns or whether it’s the loss of so many species. I mean, right now we are undergoing a mass extinction. This is an exceedingly rare thing. But at the same time so much of us in this world are not aware of it. We simply don't notice, and it makes you wonder how is it that such an enormous biodiversity losses and ecosystem collapse can go unnoticed? And I think a large part of it is the insulating effects of urban and suburban life. Perhaps we just expect not to see as much wildlife because we live in densely populated areas, most of us anyway. But in assuming that wildlife still exists out there, we fail to notice that everything is being turned into either gray concrete or green concrete, and the wildlife that we think is still out there, because we see it in books and we watch TV shows, well, that wildlife is quickly becoming a reality only in those books, in pictures and in dream. Although, even those are quickly fading.
[1:08:21] And real quick, Daniel. This idea of normalization and one generation to the next not realizing how much things have changed – I want to highlight quickly how much that timeline is being compressed, how these changes are happening faster and faster, so no longer is it jumping over generations but just within our lives. And even within our lives, you look back and say 10 years ago, they were so many fireflies and now there's almost none. And this is jump from being like “Oh yeah, my grandfather told me about how in the past it was like this” is now just “man, when I was growing up here 15 years ago, it was totally different” and that's like the acceleration of both this extinction and also this climate change that’s occurring all around us.,
[1:08:56] We've talked about, you know, as kids we would see all these butterflies but now we don't. This is something we're experiencing as it's happening within a single generation. And another example that comes from amphibians: so, let's leave the world of insects for a minute here, David, and enter the world of amphibians. One of the most fascinating groups of species and perhaps the most tragic in modern times.
[1:09:22] We don't think of frogs anything particularly notable: oh, they are cute, they hop, they make a funny noise. But frogs are actually probably some of the greatest survivors in all of evolutionary history. Modern frogs come from ancestors that are over 400 million years old. And modern amphibian orders around the world started taking shape a quarter of a billion years ago. Since the breakup of Pangaea frogs have adapted to just about every single region and climate from deserts to sheer ice. One scientist estimated that the natural background extinction rate of amphibians to be around one species lost every 1,000 years or so. But now researchers all over the world are witnessing extinction after extinction at a rate estimated 45000 times higher than this natural extinction process making amphibians one of the most endangered classes of animal on the planet. And at least where frogs are concerned almost all these mass die-offs can be explained by a single fungus that has travelled the world on the backs of international trade, especially the exotic pet trade.
[1:10:26] Speaking about becoming normalized, I think the crisis that amphibians are going through right now was first discovered in the Panamanian rainforest where researchers who study frogs all their life went to regions where in the past they would have trouble just walking without stepping on a frog: that's how many there were – and right now if you try to find them, well, maybe you can find one if you're lucky. In most places they've been completely wiped out. And this is such a revealing example of how complicit we are in this catastrophe. I think it really highlights the absurdity of this argument that “oh you know extinction is just natural and it drives evolution, therefore we shouldn't care”. Amphibians play an important foundation or role in preserving many ecosystems and they have survived hundreds of millions of years even amidst other mass extinctions, and yet here we are today with large swaths of amphibian populations falling off the map in a heartbeat, and it's largely due to a fungus that we continue to spread because we want to buy exotic frogs from Asia. Crucial species whose ancestors survived the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and four other mass extinctions, these are being forever lost because we want to buy a frog and put it in a cage. Is that really the Legacy that we as humans want to leave on this Earth? [1:11:46] And I mean amphibians are so interesting and they do play such important roles in ecosystems, I mean, we talked about how parasites transfer nutrients from one species to the other, amphibians do this very importantly from the water to land: they transfer these nutrients in this way, they are extremely important predators for many species. We get a lot of medicines from amphibians. Frogs, they are such great survivors and they live in this aquatic and very diverse ecosystems, that they have developed the ability to resist many different pathogens, it is very difficult for things to penetrate their skin, and we get a lot of medicines from that. Salamanders and other amphibian species are really good at regenerating organs and limbs which might provide, if we can hang on to them, a lot of information about how own our genes work and how we able to improve our own healing ability. And, I mean, in terms of their adaptability, there are at least five species of frogs that can survive being completely frozen in a block of ice. They just stay there, you thaw them out and they are good to go. That's incredible, and a lot of this conversation has been about species that play important roles in ecosystems like insects which are food sources for other species and one of the species higher up in the food chain that is being acutely impacted by these changes are birds.
[1:13:03] This one affects me more, maybe it’s because birds are more visible or beautiful to listen to or look at. But the loss in bird life is really a tragedy, no more than any of the others, but one that hits me harder. A comprehensive five-year study on the best-known bird species around the world was also done similar to the insect study, this came out, again, just a few months ago and it found that global bird populations are obviously in crisis. More than 40% of bird species around the world are declining. Biggest causes by far is, of course, once again industrial agriculture. All the logging, hunting, development and, of course, the climate are very high on this list as well. If you look at all these things affecting this decline, I mean, logging, hunting, development – these are all human related. We can trace them all back to human activity. Whether it's snow melting in the Arctic affecting owls there, the decline of doves and sparrows because of farming, the hunting of birds like quail for luxury food, or the impact of overfishing or pesticides impacting the creatures that these birds eat – we are indirectly or in some cases directly responsible for the deaths of his creatures.
[1:14:13] In North America, a 2016 report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative reveals that perhaps one third of all the bird species in North America are likely to disappear without intervention. And 50% of all sea bird species will also be gone. And once again, it is a diversity factors impacting these species: migratory birds, they rely on forests to refuel and rest during their migrations and deforestation coupled with climate change disrupt these migratory patterns. In addition, modern agriculture disrupts grassland and other ecosystems that birds live in and it also kills insects which birds eat.
[1:14:54] Or another example, in France, especially in areas with this industrial agriculture and especially the monoculture component of that, birds are also just totally collapsing. One migratory species saw a 70% decline in populations. More generalist species also saw huge amounts of loss. And again, these are concentrated primarily in the areas where this agriculture occurs. So, the very thing that we need to do to support ourselves to survive is wiping out these ecosystems all around us because we're not doing it in a very responsible and conscious way.
[1:15:24] At the beginning of this show we mentioned how much humans have reorganized life on Earth and that includes the animals that come with us, well, those cute furry little pets that we bring along. Domestic cats exterminate an estimated 2 billion songbirds annually in the United States alone. But to really reveal how complex these factors are there's one great example now comes from Finland. So, changes in the climate have impacted both the timing of planting and harvesting crops but it has also affected the breeding times of certain bird species. So typically, Finnish farmers, they would sow their fields, and then because of the timing birds would come into the fields and breed and set up these nests on the ground that had their eggs. But because of shifting climate patterns, different warming patterns the birds now do this nesting practice much earlier in the year. And so before Finnish have time to sow their crops, the birds lay their eggs in the fields, and then the farmers come along with their big machinery and totally eradicate all these babies.
[1:16:31] Like we need even another example, but here is one anyway. Shetland which is a subarctic island or an archipelago really up Scotland, Northeast of Great Britain, has been the home for countless seabirds for centuries, for thousands of years. It's a great stop in their migration patterns but it also provides a home and a refuge for many different species. But now these birds are plummeting and numbers that many call an apocalyptic decline. During the spring of 2000 the island had more than 33,000 puffins. Those are like really cute penguin looking guys who can also fly. Last year that number was down to just 570 and things aren't looking any better this year. In the same time period the populations of arctic terns have fallen from 9000 to just 110. So what's causing this? Well, the waters around this archipelago, they’ve warmed, inhibiting the growth of plankton which is an important food source for many of the marine animals, that the birds didn't rely on as their food source. So once again this is another example of how these ecosystems collapse when you rip out the bottom. Everything is dependent at some point on this plankton to grow and this plankton is dependent on the temperature of this water to exist. And when you change that one little factor by just a couple of degrees the whole thing falls apart. The full picture is yet to be seen as there's was no funding for this census for a couple of years. But one is being carried out right that should be complete by the end of 2019 and the researchers’ and our hopes are not very high for this unfortunately. [1:17:58] I mean we can go on and on and on with these examples for every different type of species, for every different type of animal. We haven't even touched on what's going on in the ocean I mean that its whole other episode that will be coming. But the examples are just too numerous and they're overwhelming. So instead of listing off all the different things that we’re wiping out, I think it's time to get to the end of the show, to reflect on all these topics that we discussed and to really drive home the point and ask ourselves: what can we do? Our time is running out like we mentioned in the beginning of the show we’ve got 20 to 30 years, maybe less to stop this. We need to be acting now, so what can we do?
[1:18:37] These problems are big in scope and so we often think that the solutions need to be big as well, like in our episode on proposed technofixes for climate change. We look for highly expensive major projects to solve our problems but as we see - it is our scale that has created the conditions necessary for this mass extinction in the first place, it is the scale of our civilization, it is the expansion of our population, it is our overconsumption that is driving the need for these industrial-scale agricultural productions. And so our solutions will necessarily have to be small and local to combat this enormous impact that were having on the Earth. And I want to read something that comes from Wendell Berry. It's not exactly related to this topic but it does kind of provide an alternative perspective to these ideas we have about progress and scale. So he wrote this article titled “A Remarkable Man” in which he reviews a biography on a man named Nate Shaw who was a small farmer and uneducated black man who was imprisoned by racist white society. And in this essay Wendell Berry is talking about what kind of man Nate Shaw might have been if he had been integrated into modern education and he says, quote: [1:19:59] “I am aware that such a man as Nate Shaw stands outside the notice, much less the aim, of the education system. From the standpoint of our social mainstream, the idea of a well-educated small farmer, of any race, [1:20:14] has long been a contradiction in terms, and so of course our school systems can hardly be said to tolerate any such possibility. The purpose of education with us, like the purpose of society with us, has been, and is, to get away from the small farm indeed, from the small everything. The purpose of education has been to prepare people to ‘take their places’ in an industrial society — the assumption being that all small economic units are obsolete. But the superstition of education carries it even further; it assumes that this ‘place in society’ is ‘up.’ ‘Up’ is the direction from small to big. Education is the way up. The popular aim of education is to put everybody ‘on top.’ Well, I think I hardly need to document the consequent pushing and trampling and kicking in the face.” [1:21:10] So this idea that progress is moving from small to big, that what we should strive for is being on top. I think Wendell Berry makes a good point that what we end up doing is just kicking a lot of things in the face. And in the context of this show that means that we are kicking in the face those species that make up our world, that provide beauty, that provide services, that provide functions, that provide a way for life to go forward and so in the end we're really kicking ourselves in the face. And one way forward is to get away from this idea that we need to go from small to big, and find our true place in nature, which is local and which is something that is responsible to the ecosystems that we depend on.
[1:21:57] Can I just start with what I'm going to say by asking: what the fuck are we doing? So, I mean, there's so many facts and events, and stories that we left out of this episode just because it's overwhelming, there is too much. The sheer amount of destruction that we commit every single year on this Earth is mindboggling. Last year alone for example we cut down 80% the size of Germany in terms of trees: that's a huge amount of habitat and the creatures that depended on those trees to survive – gone. We do this every single year, every single minute 40 football fields of trees are cut down, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The sheer amount of destruction, of devastation and of death that it takes to support ourselves, to support our growth, to support our decadence in the developed world is just overwhelming. And for what? You can justify these things, to say, well, we need to help the people who don't have a good standard of living, we need to divert these resources there. But the vast majority of the energy and the resources that we pull out of this Earth aren't going to the people who needed the most but they're going to a small select group of us which I myself am definitely included within, which most of those of us listening to this episode by the sheer nature of being able to tune in – we don't need it anymore. So why are we still taking? I don't know what a balanced world looks like. But the fact of the matter is the system worked well before we came in here and mucked it up and pulled all this energy out, built our worldwide civilization. It was balanced, it had found its way and it was growing and developing, and moving a new direction, whatever that is. I purposefully don't say forward, I don't say progress but it was just developing, evolving, until we came in and stepped in and moved this aside. I don't know what a path forward looks like. I just know that it doesn't look like this. [1:23:57] I had a conversation recently with a friend where we were talking about truth. What is truth? A capital T. Something that we can all point to and say yes, this is the universal experience of Truth. And how it's impossible to define. You can’t explain, you can't define it, you can't tell somebody what it is, but you can feel it, you can point the things and say: “I don't know what truth is but I know it's not that”. And that's how I feel about our world today. As I look at the destruction, as I stand here on the precipice of the Sixth Mass Extinction, of a geologic time period defined by the devastation of humanity, the Anthropocene. I have to wonder: what is truth? What is the path forward that is sustainable, that is reasonable for us as a society? And I think just like taking a block of marble, chipping away parts to find the statue, the sculpture, the piece of art, to wonder inside is what we need to do to ourselves now. We’ve built too much. Our progress has gone too far too big too quickly, and we can't keep up, and the world is dying because of this. We've killed the world. Unless we act right now to chip away the parts that we don't need to find that truth of survival, then we're dooming not only these endangered populations, we're dooming not only the climate, ultimately we're dooming our civilization, our society, our culture and even ourselves.
[1:25:20] As was pointed out in that interview with Andrew White, we can all eschewing the very sterile and accepting a little bit of messy nature in our lives, cultivating gardens, cultivating environments that are welcoming to all is perhaps a better mindset going forward. And unrelated but as we face this crisis going forward of refugees and people displaced from their homes all over the world, maybe we should also extend this welcoming mindset not just on insect and critter friends but also our fellow human beings. Also, we touched on this idea in our episode last week about intellectual property. Much of the academic world and the world of research has been turned into a private market where research is locked behind intellectual property protection that can only be accessed through huge fees or otherwise completely inaccessible to the general public and one consequence of this control of research is that much of the most important research we need is simply never carried out. Because it doesn't attract the necessary grants and funding. Studying the effects of a drug that might impact the profits of the livestock industry attracts funding. A long-term study on the cause of insect decline – not so much. We need to open up this ivory tower to the public. Let me read a quote real quick related to that German study that we mentioned, David, where one of the researchers said: “This alarming discovery, made by mostly amateur naturalists, raised an obvious question: Was this happening elsewhere? Unfortunately, that question is hard to answer because of another problem: a global decline of field naturalists who study these phenomena”.
[1:27:03] So yeah, I mean, eliminating these gross profit incentives, planting diverse native species in our land, ripping up our lawns, which I don't need to get into again, I can feel my blood rising. But, I mean, just like look at our world and stop, and say: this is ridiculous, we're causing a mass extinction this is something that asteroids do that wipes out life on Earth, we need to consume less, we need to eat more responsibly, that means vegetarian for almost all of us, we need to get rid of these gross profit incentives that prevent people who are wanting to help from being able to do the research to even identify these problems that were facing. And we need to do all this yesterday, we have just decades in order to stop this from happening. And for many species like the ʻōʻō, like these Caribou in the United States – it's too late. The time for them has passed. But instead of looking at them and using them as examples and say: this is the future that we're going to see, we can set point to them that says: these were warnings and we learned from them. And because of their sacrifice we learned from the mistakes that we made that ended up wiping them out. But we did something about it. We took a stand, we made a change, we consumed less, we changed how we interact with our world, with each other, we dissolved the monoculture industrial agriculture complex that is threatening us from so many different angles, not just in terms of this extinction but in terms of our arable land, in terms of our own health from the crops and foods that we eat. Instead we turned and said this world is out of control, it's crazy, and we're going to do something about it., [1:28:29] For us individually maybe it's impractical to take a stand but you can talk to other people, you can pass this knowledge on. And through education we can get enough that take a stand, that stop and say: okay, we’re ready to act, we’re ready to save life.
[1:28:45] With that, David, I think this is a good place to end.
[1:28:48] If you want to read more about many of these extinctions, to find facts on these to share with friends, family or people that you think should know – you can do all of that as well as find a full transcript of this episode on our website at ashesashes.org.
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[1:29:31] You can also find it on your favorite social media network app @ashesashescast. Next week we're taking a break from this heavy environmental talk to turn back to ourselves and take a look online. We’ll hope you tune in for that. But until then, this is Ashes Ashes.
[1:29:46] Bye bye