The Killing Fields: As Human Numbers Rise, Other Species Decline

I’ve read about elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade. I’m aware of shrinking forests worldwide and how rising temperatures threaten to magnify deadly insect-borne diseases. Yet I don’t always connect the dots between these particular crises and our swelling human population and the demands we make on various ecosystems.Rodolfo Dirzo_WoodsInstitute

After spending an hour inside the fourth floor office of biologist Rodolfo Dirzo on the sprawling Stanford University campus last week, however, the links between the stressors we are putting on ecosystems and species and the stressors we are placing on our own species became clear.

Dirzo, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, coined the term “Anthropocene defaunation” to describe biodiversity loss caused by human activity.

Consider these numbers from a paper Dirzo published in the journal Science this past July: 322 species of vertebrates on land have died off since 1500. The abundance of the remaining creatures has fallen 25 percent on average.

In the last 500 million years, the planet has gone through five major extinction events, the most famous being the die-off of dinosaurs when meteors crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula. Now many scientists concur that we are entering the sixth major extinction, driven by one species: that’s us, Homo sapiens.

“We calculated that the rate of extinction is hundreds or thousands times more intense than it used to be. It’s very intense,” said Dirzo.

Dirzo, who earned his Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Wales, spent his childhood in Mexico, climbing trees, collecting insects, and checking out plants and animals in the wilderness. He has continued that exploration, albeit in a more disciplined fashion, throughout his career.

Read the rest of my conversation and video clips with Dirzo at Climate Confidential on Beacon.

Population Stories: Antonia Malchik, Writer and Environmentalist

Continued from “Sex, Lies, and Sea Level Rise”.  Antonia responded to a call we put out on Facebook for stories from environmentalists who have children. She indicated that a conference on population and climate change, and reading Weisman’s Countdown, had shifted her thinking and that concerns about environmental impact had contributed to her opting for permanent birth control. We wanted to hear more.

Did you feel any sort of primal drive to have children or to have more children? 

I did earlier, before I had kids and after my first. I’d intended to have more — but for very selfish reasons. I’m an introvert and thought I could save myself from talking to boring people by surrounding myself with my own tribe. (I did actually say that.) I still experience the twinge sometimes, like I’d like to have more, but am relieved that it’s not a strong urge.

We resist primal drives all the time: by committing to monogamous relationships, by choosing healthy diets, by using reason instead of emotions to guide our decisions. The primal drive to have children, and then more children, is intense. It takes a lot of deep thinking about what you really want your whole life to look like to talk your body out of its craving. I knew I wanted my whole life to look different than what it would be if I had more kids. I wanted to work more, to focus on my children and their resilience, to become involved in my community, to actually have time to do things like hike and explore in the wildernesses I care about so much. Continue reading

Population Stories: Roger-Mark De Souza, Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience for the Wilson Center

Continued from “Sex, Lies, and Sea Level Rise”. In this Q&A, Roger-Mark De Souza, a leading expert on population and the environment with the Wilson Center, discusses both global trends and data, and his own personal story.

How did you come to be interested in population issues?

I’m originally from the Caribbean — from Trinidad and Tobago — and I came to Washington, D.C., for graduate school and stayed. After graduation, I worked with the environmental NGO World Resources Institute (WRI), whose president at the time had been appointed by President Clinton to co-chair the U.S. President’s Council on Sustainable Development. I was the special assistant to WRI’s president, so I worked a lot on this council. The council addressed various key issues: energy consumption, land use, sustainable communities, international engagement, and agriculture. One of the last issues that the council addressed was population and consumption; there was a lot of controversy around whether we’d even touch it. That was really interesting. To me, population dynamics — the size, distribution, and composition of populations — are such an integral part of sustainable development. It touches on human well-being, environmental preservation, and equity all at once.

That experience with the council made me reflect on my childhood in the Caribbean and going into local communities with my youth group as a teenager to talk to folks about how they could improve their lives. I remember I met a 17-year-old woman who had three children, and it had a huge impact on me because she was similar to me. She was my age, was educated, and went to a very good high school. I was just so surprised because she could have easily been any one of my friends. As we chatted about her future and the future of her children, we looked at each other, and I whispered, “Have you ever thought about family planning?” It was just not something young people were really thinking about. Continue reading

Population Stories: Brook Meakins, Attorney and Founder of Drowning Islands

Continued from “Sex, Lies, and Sea Level Rise”

Working with Drowning Islands, a group she founded to advocate for people in island states affected by global-warming-induced sea level rise, Brook Meakins has conducted fact-finding missions to Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Grenada, the Maldives, and the Marshall Islands, as well as islands and coastal communities all over the world. More than many other people, Meakins has seen the impacts of climate change first-hand, but that’s not the only reason she has chosen not to have children. Here she explains the various factors that influenced her decision.

Can you walk me through your thought process around having kids?
My husband and I both have really large families; everyone is divorced and remarried. I have a 9-year-old little brother, lots of other siblings, tons of nieces and nephews. In the past year we found out that we’re going to have two more [nieces and nephews] next year. And we love being Auntie and Uncle; we take that role pretty seriously. I wouldn’t want to make a negative comment about having children, but we have just come to a really different decision when it comes to having kids. I’m really serious and passionate about adoption and was quite confident from an early age that I didn’t want to have a biological child. Continue reading

Editor’s Note: The P Word

Of all the big, seemingly intractable problems associated with the environment, the biggest is us. It’s not you or me or us or them. It’s all of us and all of them — and all of those who are to come.

But the topic of population is largely absent from policymaking, campaigning, debating, and even dinner table conversations about natural resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity, environmental health, or the natural world. The issues swirling around fertility, family planning, the choice to procreate, and the impacts of procreation are just too personal. They are too fraught with emotions, guilt, and I-know-better-than-you-isms. They are at once too familial and too global.

But get ready, folks: We’re going there. For the month of November (and beyond) we’ll be talking all about the P Word.

We’re not going to back into the personal stuff, either. Amy Westervelt kicks it off later this week with a collection of stark, frank discussions with a range of people about how they weighed the issues surrounding child choice and climate in their own lives. You’ll likely resonate with some of the opinions and worldviews expressed — in fact, they might be literally your own, as we’ve partly crowd-sourced the story with Climate Confidential readers. But some points of view you might find wrong-headed or myopic — and if you do, tell us! We want to keep the conversation going. Comment on the story or send us a tweet, using #thePword. Continue reading

What Drones Are Learning From Insects


Since the dawn of entomology (more or less), scientists have been pondering the question posed so eloquently in “High Hopes,” a song Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote for the 1959 movie “A Hole in the Head,” starring Frank Sinatra: Just what makes that little old ant think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?

Stephen Pratt, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, knows the answer as well as anyone. He runs Pratt Lab, where researchers study how insect societies source food, build nests, and generally get along. The very short answer, he said, is that ants use collective, decentralized intelligence to perform complex tasks. It helps that they also lack an instinct for self-preservation and are focused only on actions that advance the group’s missions.

These characteristics have piqued the interest of robotics engineers such as Vijay Kumar, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He and the researchers in his GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception) lab are developing “swarms” of UAVs that work in concert. These devices take hundreds of measurements each second, calculating their position in relation to each other, working cooperatively toward particular missions, and just as important, avoiding each other despite moving quickly and in tight formations. Kumar and his colleagues are using intel from Pratt’s lab, particularly around how ants communicate and cooperate without any central commander, to make swarming UAVs even more autonomous. Continue reading

Dung Beetles to the Rescue!

Dung beetles do their thing in Namibia: Photo copyright, Johan Strydom, Creative Commons.

Dung beetles do their thing in Namibia: Photo copyright, Johan Strydom, Creative Commons.

Sometimes it’s hard to improve upon nature. For example, nature has invented numerous ways to process poop. But when farmers introduced cattle to Australia, they began to have poop problems, as Australia’s nature wasn’t equipped to deal with that animal’s excrement. In the late 1960s, Australia’s national science agency decided that a natural solution was better than high tech and began importing dung beetles to tackle the job. Bernard Doube worked on that team for 30 years and now sells beetles via mail order. Here, he chats with Climate Confidential about his life’s work. Continue reading

Bug-Inspired Solutions For Climate Change

Creating technology that cribs genius design tricks from, say, termites or spiders can help humans live more lightly on Earth – or even adapt to climate change. Called biomimicry, the concept taps into vetted methods that have been developed over millions of years of evolution and adaptation. But replicating nature’s solutions isn’t easy, and much of the work remains in academic research labs.

Oriental hornet

Leonardo da Vinci was essentially practicing biomimicry when he closely observed birds to sketch flying machines. But modern academic and commercial interest in biomimicry has taken flight only in the past three decades, when Connie Lange Merrill coined the term in a 1982 research paper for Rice University and scientist Janine Benyus published a book on the topic in 1997. Many researchers are trying to figure out ways to clean up pollution, harvest water, generate low-carbon electricity, and cool a room more efficiently. Biomimicry is an exciting idea, and it has spawned nonprofits, consulting firms, and competitions to highlight how it could help us manage our resources more efficiently.

For this month’s Bug Issue, I’m showcasing some of the intriguing research that uses biomimicry to address the cause and consequences of climate change, from water scarcity to antibiotics development.

To continue reading this story, visit Climate Confidential on BEACON

When Climate Bites: The Race to Decode and Disarm Disease-Spreading Bugs

Just as coastal cities are looking to bolster themselves for sea level rise, public health systems must now develop a disease-prevention and tracking strategy for a warming world. That’s because, as climate change alters the rhythm and range of environments that allow mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and other insects to thrive, it’s also shifting the burden of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Lyme disease. The first story in our series about bugs explores the new world of vector-borne disease (and technologies harnessed to fight it) in the era of climate change. Check out the whole story over on Beacon, or read on for an excerpt.

Globally climate change will hit health hardest in places where infrastructure is lacking and “public health disasters” are the baseline, where children are undernourished, and maternal deaths are the highest, said Perry Sheffield, a pediatrician and lecturer of environmental health sciences on faculty at Columbia University. (Image credit: WHO.)

Continue reading

Editor’s Note: The Bug Issue

Bugs: Both our bane (disease-bearing mosquitoes) and our everything (hello, bees), bugs tend to play villain or hero in the stories humans tell — but more often villain. Our primal ick response can blind us to their importance in our world. This month Climate Confidential takes a closer look at some of our small planetary cohorts to discover why — and how — they matter.

Like many people, I felt icky toward insects — until a college friend, an amateur entomologist, showed me some weevils in his collection. They were shades of gorgeous turquoise, with long snouts, adorable antennae, and delicate, segmented feet.

They are also stunning in their diversity. Weevils are a type of beetle, and beetles are so prolific and diverse that they make up 20 percent of all species on Earth. Found in nearly all earthly habitats, their various adaptive eating habits ensure they play many roles in different ecosystems. They are vegetarians, scavengers, predators, and parasites. They are prey, feeding reptiles, birds, mammals and fish. And they infamously bug our crops and trees. They are also pollinators and champion nutrient recyclers, breaking down unpleasantries like carrion and cow poop while enhancing soil fertility and mitigating other buggy pests. In these latter roles, they are a foundation of healthy ecosystems. Continue reading