They Didn't Stand a Chance

My apologies for such a dismal post topic, but modernity made me do it. I’ve borne witness to a number of the following tragedies first-hand. When exposed to similar atrocities in your own life, I recommend repeating the mantra that appears at the end of every point below. I think it helps in fighting human supremacism, validating other life and recognizing the pain we inflict—often unwittingly as we animate the maw of modernity. Evolution did not prepare the plants and animals of this planet for a sudden and dramatic up-ending of the world they were customized to inhabit. That’s on us.

Twenty Terrible Tales

A massive tree that took hundreds of years to attain tremendous height and bulk was no match for an hour of chainsaw action. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A gangly moose was minding its own business in the willow thicket along the stream edge, when—BAM—its head was taken to grace the lodge wall. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Domesticated bees were bred to produce more honey and be less aggressive. Weakened against parasites and disease, their colonies crashed. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A deer, finding itself on a strange, hard, flat ribbon stood transfixed as two unearthly lights sped closer, seemingly set to pass on either side. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Orangutans who lived for countless generations in the dense and biodiverse rainforest found their home destroyed and replaced by oil palms. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance. [Warning: only watch the link if you are ready to be haunted for life by seeing the skinny, muddy “bean” at the end of all things.  It grieves me to my core.]

A butterfly created a caterpillar who had the misfortune to eat pesticide-coated leaves, undergoing metamorphosis into a dead lump. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The noble forebears of our dumb-bred domesticated (captive) animals had no evolutionary answer to ropes and tall fences. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The chattering swallows returned in spring to raise a new set of chicks. But the local mosquitos had been exterminated, leaving the parents and chicks to starve. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

An 80-year-old tortoise followed the familiar route through the forest, across a road that wasn’t there in its youth, just as a truck came along. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The wasps weren’t bothering anybody when they went about their business raising young in a nest under the eaves, only to be shot by a 3 meter jet of poison. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Native grasses and flowers tried to restore health to a corn field, only to be coated in herbicide dropped by an airplane. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Crabs, lobsters, clams, and oysters found that they were no longer able to make protective shells in more acidic water, ultimately perishing from this earth. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A rough-skinned newt, in bursts of slowness, made its way across a wet road at dusk, only to have its innards abruptly and rudely squashed out through its mouth. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The exquisite ruffed grouse cruised into a clearing, aiming for trees that turned out to be a reflection in a house window. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Salmon had fed the forest for millions of years, but demand for heat pumps, electric vehicles, and chat-bots put a dam in their way. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A large prairie dog colony had lived on this patch of land as long as anyone could remember. The commercial developer orchestrated their final solution. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The polar bear cubs got exhausted from swimming in a futile effort to find ice and seals. Their inevitable end was cold, wet, hungry, and oh-so skinny. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The foxes in the Mojave desert required large unobstructed habitat, which vast new solar farms fenced, shaded, and uprooted. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A sea turtle had no notion of the word “bycatch,” yet found itself dying in a crowded net all the same, only to be discarded as waste upon discovery. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Pursuers of modernity forgot themselves, thinking they owned and controlled the world, no longer subject to limits or part of a larger ecology. The world taught them a cruel lesson on the definition of unsustainability. They, for a change, might have known better, but as it was didn’t stand a chance.

End Note

The common thread is forcing plants and animals out of their evolutionary context, as we have done to ourselves as well via modernity.

I kept coming up with more examples, and eventually decided to stop because I felt I was beating a dead horse. It’s surprising how many more examples I could have used, and I suspect you could come up with a number not covered here yourself. It is telling that we are not running short on grim accounts of biodiversity loss.

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Let's Make a Deal!

Several posts of mine have sought to put the value of Earth’s biodiversity in context. The first of these leveraged the cute coincidence that all the animals on the planet are about the same weight as all the gold within 5 km of the land’s surface to make the case that animals are worth more than their weight in gold.

The next installment made a similar case for insects (arthropods, more generally), placing a premium economic value of at least $10,000 per kilogram of bug mass.

In this post, I ask: what would you be willing to trade for all animal life on this planet? It may seem like a forced and false choice, as nobody is proposing to eliminate all animal life on the planet. Despite this, we’re doing a dazzlingly good job of marching toward that very goal, whether explicitly intending to or not. Typical decline rates among vertebrates and insects are in the 1–2% per year ballpark; average decline in vertebrate populations is 70% since 1970; and a sixth mass extinction appears to have kicked off with extinction rates about 1,000 times the background rate. So, the prospect of losing Earth’s biodiversity is not purely hypothetical, thus deserving serious attention. I’ll have more to say about the validity of this approach at the end.

Meanwhile, are you ready to play the game?

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Nothing, Without Bugs

Image by Ron van den Berg from Pixabay

A while back I wrote a post pointing out a way to see that animals are worth more than their weight in gold. The concept was cute, but not fully defensible in detail. Yet, the many orders-of-magnitude difference in market value of animals vs. their gold-equivalent value at least indicated that we might have something wrong, on the basis that we can’t live without the animals, but could live without gold.

In this post, I will follow a similar path to arrive at what I think is even a more stark result: that the economic value of arthropods (e.g., insects) is something like $10,000 per kilogram. To get here, we need to first preview the numbers.

Dry carbon biomass on Earth, from Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo; PNAS 115, 6506, 2018.

A look at Figure 1 in a 2018 paper by Bar-On at al. (reproduced above) shows that Planet Earth hosts 2.4 Gt (giga-tons) of animals, in terms of dry carbon mass. The largest block within the animal kingdom is arthropods (includes insects, spiders, centipedes, and crustaceans), at 1 Gt. Fish are nearly as big, at 0.7 Gt. By contrast, wild mammals are only 0.007 Gt, and wild birds are a comparatively tiny 0.002 Gt.

I have pointed out before that humans now vastly outweigh wild mammals, to the point that we only have 2.5 kg of wild land mammal mass left per human on the planet (presently plummeting). Note that this is a “wet” mass figure, whereas the numbers above are dry carbon mass (about 15% of wet mass).

The trends are falling fast: insect, bird, mammal, amphibian, and fish populations are losing ground to the tune of 1–2% per year, amounting to halving populations over a handful of decades [late addition: good article on subject]. Inevitably, then, extinctions are up a thousand-fold, and increasing. This is decidedly not good, and perhaps the most glaring sign that modernity is a literal dead-end path.

The approach here is to assume that Earth’s ecology would crash without any arthropods. The same might be said for fish, or birds, or any major group. Bugs (an informal catch-all substitute for arthropods here) are particularly attractive to me for this exercise because they are so crucial in terms of food for others, soil conditioning, pollination—and other services—that it is hard to believe other phyla could carry on without them. Evolution produces a complex interconnected web that cannot be expected to maintain its overall integrity if surgically plucked apart in this way—much as an organism cannot be expected to survive if completely removing any one of many key organs.

Therefore, no bugs, no humans. No them, no us. The same argument could probably be made for other phyla, producing slightly different quantitative results than what follows, but the same in spirit.

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Deer in the Headlights

Too late to stop. Must hit deer or car. Pick a lane.

Do the Math readers have surely noticed a new bone I like to gnaw of late: human supremacy. For me, this started in early 2022 with a post that I called at the time Human Exceptionalism. Since then, I recognize that humans are indeed exceptional, as are other species—each in their own ways. In the 20 months since writing the “exceptionalism” post—bolstered by things I’ve read in the interim—my sense has only strengthened that the perception of separateness began in earnest when we started mastering land and beast via agriculture and herding, became far more pronounced during the Enlightenment, and now is the chief engine behind modernity and the meta-crisis. I recommend a magnificent book chapter by Eileen Crist from 2015 (republished at Resilience) that was missing from my life these past 8 years. At this point, I would far sooner try to address the root problem of human supremacy than engage in any talk of technology—which simply becomes a tool to effect human supremacist aims to the ultimate detriment of all..

If we could somehow stamp out human supremacy, I believe that humans would spontaneously organize differently, prioritize the more-than-human world, begin to place more value on the far future, set aside science/technology fetishism to focus on deeper values, and—in short—become wiser. Many of the ills caused by modernity would simply melt away under a new worldview, accompanied by a complete overhaul of how we think, know, and live. Many of the actions of today would seem unthinkable and repulsive under a non-supremacist worldview.

So how might we stamp out human supremacy? One step is to employ tools that help us recognize it in ourselves. Are you a human supremacist? I was. No doubt I still harbor aspects of the scurrilous affliction, embedded as I am within modernity. My apologies (and respect) if you happen to be the rare bird who has escaped the cage, but the safest assumption for now is that you are indeed a human supremacist—whether you recognize it or not—as that’s what our culture produces en masse. If you don’t like the suggestion that you’re a human supremacist, then good! That’s a great starting place, and I could hardly ask for more. Most racists bristle at being called racist, which is adorable in a contemptible sort of way.

This post proposes a crude test for deep-seated human supremacist attitudes. It has echoes of the classic “trolley problem,” and I hate myself for that. But the setup is not as hypothetical or unlikely. Also, rather than the intractable weighing of (sacred) human lives against action/inaction, I think this one has a clearer logical resolution.

The Scenario

Two cars rapidly approach each other on a two-lane road that for a short span has no shoulders (e.g., guard rails, steep bluffs). Shortly before the cars reach each other, a large deer suddenly pops out into one lane and freezes. It is too late to brake in time to avoid hitting the deer, so the only choice on the part of the unlucky driver is to plow into the massive deer at windshield height or swerve into the oncoming car for a destructive head-on collision and near-certain death of those in both cars. In order to bypass the effect of self-preservation, let us stipulate that the driver in the lane with the deer will die either way, and knows this. Which choice makes sense? Is it obvious to you?

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Are WE Lucky?

What if we ask a rough-skinned newt, assigning it greater importance than is customary?

To prevent the reader from wondering if they have the wrong blog, I will warn that this post starts in an unfamiliar voice. In some respects, it reflects a younger me. But mostly it channels views familiar to modernity, by no coincidence.  We start with a guy (of course) hogging the microphone.

Space is cool. Astronauts are badass. Maybe me too, someday.

What we’ve learned is amazing—we have tamed so much—our reach and control are ever-increasing.

Information and analysis are accelerating: we’re on our way to mastering everything.

We have learned to outmaneuver all limits. Nothing can stop us from having it all—even immortality may be in the cards soon.

We are so lucky to have pulled ourselves out of the muck—no longer mere animals.

We are so lucky to be as clever as we are: ingenious innovators.

We are so lucky (and brilliant) to have found the fossil fuels that powered our ascent—but that’s just the start.

What’s this you say? Growth can’t go forever on a finite planet?

Well, not to worry: did I mention that space is cool, and that it is in our nature to skirt past limits?

What’s that? Space colonization is a juvenile fantasy, you say?

No, I can’t prove that it’s destined to happen. But why would the burden of proof be on me, when it’s so obvious that’s where we’re heading? What relevance is it that we have no examples even remotely close to sustainable living in space over long durations?

What’s this? Fossil fuels are finite and likely to decline this century?

No matter. Renewable energy: solar, wind, nuclear!

Don’t be a pest. It’s beside the point that nuclear is not renewable—you know what I mean: unlimited energy awaits. Fusion, then.

Wait: too many things at once:

  1. Of course unlimited energy is a great thing—why the hell wouldn’t it be?
  2. Why should it be relevant that we’ve never built solar panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels?
  3. What does it even matter if these technologies use ten times the mined resources as fossil fuels? Earth is enormous.
  4. Surely, you jest that we don’t have ways to make concrete and steel, carry on our mining practices, support air travel and global shipping without fossil fuels. I can probably find a cute demonstration blasting each of these, or at least imagine them—which is theoretically enough.
  5. I don’t understand the relevance of your point that most of our 8 billion people are fed by the fruits of fossil fuels for fertilizer and mechanization: we’ll just do something different/better!

So don’t get hung up on fossil fuels! Yes, they are causing climate change, but that’s just another hiccup that we’ll master and tame in the usual heroic fashion: just look at the explosion of solar and wind and electric cars (now roaring up to a few percent penetration!). We’re lucky, remember! Fossil fuels are just a stepping stone to an even richer future. Failure is not an option, say I: we’re increasingly capable and increasingly in control. Our destiny is clear: just look at how far we’ve come! This trajectory must continue. To think otherwise ludicrously ignores a centuries-long trend—even if you do claim to rest your argument on biophysical reality and not on an inheritance-spending extrapolation lasting only a handful of human lifetimes. It’s only your toxic (lack of?) imagination and lack of faith that threatens our greatness: we have to believe in order to mold reality to our dreams.

Hey—how dare you! Give. Me. (grunt) Back. That. MICRoph…

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Earth's Real Treasure

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

A 2018 paper by  Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo in PNAS contains a fascinating figure (Figure 1) that bears staring at for some time. It shows the dry carbon biomass distribution of various forms of life on Earth. Plants account for 450 Gt (giga-ton; 1012 kg) of mass, while the sum of all animals adds to 2.5 Gt. Humans comprise only 2.4% of animal mass on the planet, but that’s almost ten times as large as wild mammal mass. Add human livestock (outweighing human mass) and wild mammals are only 4% of the human-livestock-mammal trio.

But this post is heading somewhere else: lament about the un-wilding of the planet on your own time (kidding aside, please do!). Let’s start by considering the following question. Which do you think is more valuable: the web of living animals on this planet, or all the gold accessible in the ground? If given a choice to eliminate one and preserve the other, which would you choose? Gold, among Earth’s mineral stocks, is used for this question because it has served as a physically-based monetary standard for many cultures throughout time.

What follows has absurd elements to it, but hopefully in forgivable service of a larger point about the value of life on this planet and in shining a glaring spotlight on current human values.

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Sir David Nails It

David Attenborough for A life on Our Planet

This is the TV poster for “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet.” (CNS photo/Netflix)

If you have not already watched A Life on Our Planet, serving as a witness statement from Sir David Attenborough, please find a way to do so. During his experience-rich lifetime, Attenborough has had a front row seat to the steady whittling down of nature. Any contemporary nature show will justifiably sound the climate change horn, as A Life on Our Planet does as well. But Sir David digs deeper, as few tend to do, and scoops up the essence of the matter.

I have now watched the show three times. The first instance resonated strongly with recent revelations and writings of my own, and I gladly watched it a second time with my wife. The third time, one hand hovered over the pause button while the other scribbled notes and captured key quotations. This post delivers said quotes and connects them to themes dear to my heart. Note: the quotes in the show are delivered verbally, so any formatting emphasis is my own.

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