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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How many scientists does it take to change a light bulb?

Q: How many scientists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: They won't change it.  It's not their problem.

I noted something in the news a few weeks ago.  Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann made a statement about the potential side effects of a vaccine for cervical cancer.  The response from the medical and public health communities was swift: the statement had no supporting evidence behind it.  Vaccines may carry some risks and cost money, but they save lives.  The benefits clearly outweigh the risks in most cases (although not all doctors agree whether teenage girls should get the vaccine for various reasons).  The rebuke got plenty of coverage, and the misinformation was effectively countered.

Contrast that with the blatantly false statement by Texas governor Rick Perry recently, that global warming is a hoax.  I heard it repeated over and over on the radio news briefs, with no countering view presented whatsoever.  Maybe some of that stems from the media's own reticence to acknowledge that there really isn't any debate at all in the world of science over the reality of human-induced climate change.  But no news outlet I follow, not even the "liberal" ones, reported on any response at all from the scientific community.  It's possible I missed it.  It's also possible that there was an outcry, but the media didn't report it.  Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence that the media tend to overplay any climate change deniers' claims compared to the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue.  However, I really don't think that's what happened either, and an example of what makes me feel that way can be found in Hawaii in early November.

The Wildlife Society, the venerable professional society for wildlife ecologists and natural resource managers, is holding its annual meeting on the Big Island of Hawaii.  On their conference web site, the Society states that of all states, Hawaii "spotlights the most-pressing challenges that natural resource managers and conservationists face today—including the rapid spread of invasive species and the impacts of a changing climate."

The plight of the polar bear is probably the most widely publicized outcomes of global climate change.  Photo by Kathy Crane, NOAA Arctic Research Program.

Conference attendees won't be out solving those problems on the ground, they'll be attending paper sessions, networking, discussing the various topics of particular focus, and going on field trips.  The vast majority of them are going to have to fly to get there.  That adds up to a tremendous blast of carbon into the atmosphere, another blow to the goal of stabilizing emissions to try to limit the damage already underway.  That won't do much to help the highly endangered native Hawaiian ecosystems. The Wildlife Society meeting in Hawaii doesn't have a session on climate change. Presumably that will be discussed on the side.

Does The Wildlife Society really take climate science seriously?  One has to wonder.  Maybe this is why politicians and other leaders in our society go unchallenged far too often when they make blatantly ignorant statements about climate change.

Yellowstone fire. Photo by NOAA.

Unfortunately, this blind behavior isn't limited to wildlife biologists.  Virtually all of the scientific societies dealing with the biological sciences and even conservation biology hold national meetings and encourage their membership to attend.  Sometimes you can view presentations after the fact on the website, but no society to my knowledge allows members to attend remotely, or to view presentations in real time through skype, webinars, or other streaming technology.  Even the National Science Foundation expects the panelists charged with reviewing grant proposals for funding to fly in for a three-day meeting.  I found this out when I was invited to participate on a review panel.  When I asked if I could attend remotely, because the climate change science is very clear regarding the danger of carbon emissions, my email went unanswered.  Apparently not.

Individuals often do little better.  Most of us have changed our light bulbs, carry reusable grocery bags and coffee mugs, and occasionally carpool or use alternative transportation.  Very few of us have even begun to think about how we need to change the fundamental way we've begun to do business in the last few decades.  When I bring up climate change to another scientist, most often the answer is a shrug and a comment that the public is stupid, politicians are stupid, or we can't do anything about it anyway.  In short, it isn't our problem, we just do the science.

For people who profess to care about ecology and conservation, this is a travesty.  All of us need to recognize that we can either start planning how we are willing to be inconvenienced to limit the damage already in the works, or have far greater inconveniences forced on us without choice.  Not going to scientific meetings or networking in person is inconvenient.  There is a potential cost to a person's career.  But climate change and the horrendous damage that will follow from increased violence of storms, droughts, fires, and the fundamental chemical changes in the ocean and atmosphere will be far worse.

Wreckage of Hurricane Irene. Photo by Christopher Mardoff, FEMA

If we scientists, trained to evaluate evidence and respond accordingly, are unwilling or unable to take climate change seriously enough to alter how we do business, why should the reporter, the member of the general public, or the politician?

First, we have to own the problem, and be willing to recognize that we, too, are responsible both for the problem and its solution.  That is the necessary first step to being able to tackle the serious misinformation being presented by our society's leaders.  Changing a light bulb or restructuring a scientific society's annual meeting to encourage remote attendance won't save the planet all by themselves.  But if you walk your talk, people notice.  And when you also feel strongly enough about your science to call out those who would twist it to their own ends, people are much more likely to take you seriously. 

The Hawaiian honey creepers are counting on us.

'I'iwi, Vestiaria coccinea.  Photo by Jack Jeffry

Monday, September 12, 2011

Food Web

Buying a bag of dog food isn’t a big deal, if you’ve got a dog and a budget that allows you to look after your friend without making harsh choices about who’s going to get to eat in your household this week.  From the sales figures, most pet owners don’t have that misfortune, pet product sales being one of the most recession-proof industries in the last few years.  The figures aren’t all about dog food, either.  They include all the accessories you can possibly imagine, and unless you’re a dog owner, quite a few that you possibly can’t.  For many of us, our dogs are a major focus of our discretionary spending.

I never thought much about dog food until my young dog threw us a curve ball with his first grand mal seizure in the middle of a long night last winter.  After tests, our vet concluded that Raven has idiopathic epilepsy. At least he’s just a dog, as much as we love him, and not another human being.  For one thing, he only falls over from a height of two feet, not far enough to risk serious injury, and his thick fur helps pad the impact.  His life will not suddenly become much more difficult because he can’t drive a car, and he seems unburdened by the knowledge that he could unpredictably suffer another episode, something human epileptics must accept.  He’s still the same happy-go-lucky sweet goofball he’s always been, most of the time.  But each seizure is still a scary mess, and not something anyone would care to deal with if they don’t have to. 

I did some research, quickly learning that there is no consensus on how to best manage this condition other than with medication, which often doesn’t work.  Among the many tips unsubstantiated by any scientific research was the suggestion that feeding a high-protein diet without preservatives might alleveiate the seizures.  Diet changes had reportedly helped reduce seizures in children.  The lack of consensus in managing this disease may stem from the fact that lots of malfunctions in the brain lead to seizures; not knowing the exact cause, some cautious experimentation seemed in order.

This led to a trip to the local high-quality pet store.  I faced an entire wall of dog kibble, nothing compared to what I’d face at PetsMart but enough to be overwhelming.  After squinting at a half-dozen ingredients labels printed in size-three font, I sought the help of one of the store personnel, who in my experience have been pretty knowledgeable about what they sell.  I explained what I needed to an earnest young woman wearing round wire-rim glasses.

She pointed me to a bag of kibble that not only contained the requisite high protein content and no preservatives, it was made with regional meats including salmon, wild boar, and bison.  It cost $80 for a 30-pound bag.  They’re human-grade ingredients, the young woman at the store told me proudly.  Your dog will love it, she said. 

I’m sure he would.

We choose to share our lives with animals, and the benefits can be legion.  Part of the compact we make in return for their love is food, water and shelter.  Dogs happen to be carnivores, and although it is possible to feed a generalist carnivore like the domestic dog a diet made up of protein that is not meat-based, it is not easy and mostly not recommended.  My dog may eat more meat in a month than I have in my entire adult life. 

I struggled to explain that even without the sticker shock, I couldn’t feed my dog this food in a world that is rapidly becoming ever more crowded with people, with fewer resources to go around.  A lot of pet food is made from the scraps that those of us who can afford to be picky would prefer not to eat; in any case, the industrial food system pretty much renders them inedible to people and marginally edible for pets.  Feeding a dog is not necessarily synonymous with starving a person.  A bag of dog food doesn’t represent much against world hunger in any real sense.  Reformulating the entire company’s line of dog food into something not only human grade but human palatable wouldn’t make much of a dent.  However, even very small acts can build to major consequences.  And something within me balked at feeding my dog the flesh of a fish swimming against extinction in much of the Pacific Northwest.

Let the fish stay wild in the rivers.  I don’t like my dog eating the waste from the slaughterhouse floor and a staggering list of preservatives whose chemical names I can barely pronounce, but there has to be a middle ground, somewhere.  There has to be a way to restore some sanity to a world where the affordable food may not be safe or nutritious, and the safe food is the prerogative mostly of the obsessed or the wealthy.  Unfortunately the problem isn’t just limited to pet food, or pet ownership.

That led to a second dilemma for me, as I had to ask myself how much of my income I was willing to spend on my dog, and therefore not on helping other people.  The bills associated with owning my dog have soared, with twice-daily medications, regular blood tests, a somewhat less fancy but high-quality kibble, and other expenses.  There’s less money to donate to the food bank, the animal shelter, or to conservation.

Raven is not aware of issues of social justice, let alone concerned about them.  That’s not why we invite dogs into our households.  They’re there to give love, make us laugh, and maybe to offer us the opportunity to express the best parts of ourselves now and then.  These needs fall right behind the basic need of being fed.  Hopefully the people around us meet these needs, but it doesn’t always work that way, and many of us just find great joy in our relationships with our animals.  Those relationships are clearly worth a great deal, but how do we balance the choices with the obligations we hold to each other, let alone the other beings on this planet?

How will we navigate a world where increasing scarcity may force even more choices between who eats and who does not, where the shortages are not just political?  What exactly should go into a bag of dog food?