Roger Payne is best known for his discovery that humpback whales sing songs, and for his theory that the sounds of fin and blue whales can be heard across oceans. Dr. Payne has studied the behavior of whales since 1967. In addition to his discovery about humpback whales, he theorized correctly that the sounds of fin and blue whales are heard across oceans. He has led over 100 expeditions to all the Earth’s oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. He pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales, and has trained many of the current leaders in whale research in America and abroad. He directs longterm research projects on the songs of humpback whales, and on the behavior of 1,700 individually known Argentine right whales — the longest such continuous study.

You can read some of Dr. Payne’s writings below.

Dr. Roger Payne: Using the Internet to Promote Interspecies Communication

On July 15, 2019, a meeting was held at MIT on the subject of using the internet to promote interspecies communication. It was the brainchild of Neil Gershenfeld, Peter Gabriel, Vint Cerf, and Diane Reiss. Among those present at the meeting who gave presentations were Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Irene Pepperberg, Penny Patterson, Aza Razkin, Brett Selvitelle, Patricia Grey, Con Slobodchikoff and many others of equal impact. I only had time to present about half of what is shown below.

Right after our meeting ended on Tuesday the 16th there was another meeting at MIT that I attended titled Net@50. It was a celebration of this, the 50th year of the internet. In attendance were most of the still-living engineers and scientists who had created the internet and had gotten it adopted. The lectures I enjoyed most were by Neil Gershenfeld and Juan Enriquez.

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I specialize in the behavior of baleen whales. However, I will speak here about toothed whales because I think the near future may offer a grand opportunity to use the internet to eavesdrop on and make sense out of their acoustic interactions—i.e., whalespeak.

The late Stan Kuczaj [Cue-sage] ran a fascinating experiment with two dolphins: Hector and Han. He taught them tricks such as: waving a flipper, blowing bubbles, making sounds in air, leaping out of the water, and so on; but with a twist: every behavior they performed had to be a something they hadn’t yet done in that session.
Once they learned the task, Stan Cue-sage tested Hector and Han together. He would give them a command to “innovate,” meaning that the dolphin pair had to perform, in unison, some behavior that they hadn’t yet performed for Cue-sage in that session.

They got good at it; following a command to innovate, they would dive underwater, exchange whistles a few moments, then start a new trick—performing it in what appeared to be precise unison. When the trick was over, they received a reward and Cue-sage signaled them again to innovate. Once more they would submerge, make whistles and clicks, and then, in unison, perform a second trick that Cue-sage hadn’t seen in that session. This kept up until the dolphins had performed 8 tricks in unison (each for the first time in that session) at which point Cue-sage ended the session.

He concluded that either: one of them was imitating the other with so little delay and so closely that it looked like the tricks were performed simultaneously. Or: they were somehow communicating to each other which trick to do next.

This could be a golden opportunity to test whether dolphins can communicate such information to each other. I am told that Henry and Han have both passed on, but if another pair with the same talent were placed in different tanks and different buildings, several miles apart—far enough so they could only hear and see each other via an electronic hook-up, and if each tank was equipped with a hi-fidelity underwater microphone, loudspeaker, TV screen, and cameras, they could communicate over the internet with sounds or body language and you could see whether they could still perform identical tricks in unison. If they could, you could find out whether they were communicating with sound, or with body language by seeing whether turning off the image, or turning off the sound before each new trick was what caused them to stop synchronizing their tricks.
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Many people have tried to find out whether dolphins have a language. Currently, most scientists believe they do not. However it is one of the more vexing questions in animal behavior. I think it might be much more interesting at this point to focus on finding out as much as we can about the lives of dolphins by asking them simple questions.

Suppose you taught a dolphin to press a specific key on an underwater keyboard that stood for a particular emotion, such as anger, or fear, or affection, or dislike, or jealousy, or curiosity, etc.) I am not talking about the dolphin speaking words, just pressing keys or manipulating symbols that stand for words. You could establish such an equivalence for, say, the word “Fear” by putting a dolphin into several fear-causing situations and rewarding it when it pressed the key you had labelled “Fear.” You could also choose several situations likely to cause your dolphin frustration and reward it for pressing the key labelled “Frustration.” Once your dolphin was labelling emotions consistently, you could put her in with a group of other dolphins and watch them interact. When you saw a behaviour whose motivation you didn’t understand you could ask your dolphin, “Why did you do that?” And reward a reply such as “Fear,” or “Frustration,” or “Anger.” Such a protocol would give interesting insights into dolphin behavior as well as their capacity for communication. Critics of this approach could be expected to point out that what you rewarded the dolphin for labelling as a fearful situation might have been more like anger than fear and that you were confusing those emotions. But that doesn’t negate the full value of such an experiment. It would simply mean you were confusing anger for fear. You would, at the same time be gaining evidence that dolphins experience and can recognize different emotions.

Under the best circumstances emotions are complex and hard to label with certainty, but that doesn’t mean we can learn nothing from someone who describes a particular emotion as including a somewhat different set of descriptors than we might use to describe it. Words used to describe emotions aren’t absolutes; they are useful averages of different collections of related but not completely overlapping shades of meaning. Once your dolphin mastered the concept of labelling the emotional content of a social group, you could go on to show her videos of other dolphins, and while she was watching them ask her—”Why is Santini doing that?”—and hope for an answer such as, “Anger,” or “Affection”

If this worked, you might try asking dolphins direct questions. For example: Do you fear boats? Are sharks scary? Is your mother afraid of sharks? Is your brother? Who is most afraid of sharks, you or your brother?” You might then interview the subject’s brother and ask him the same questions. Or to gain broader insight, ask the same questions of all the individuals that you had interviewed and compare all the answers.
Or you might ask the dolphin, “Who do you like most your brother or your sister?” Or: “Who does your mother like most, you? Your brother? Your sister? Your father? Santini’s father?” Depending on the answer, it might be interesting to ask Santini’s father the same question; and to tell your dolphin’s mother his answer. Gossips often impart social information with consequences. Is it entirely unreasonable to suppose that the same may be true of dolphins?

The majority of the questions suggested above can be framed as preferences between two or more alternatives, something dolphins understand and learn to do readily. By this process you might also find out if dolphins lie to each other regularly as humans do (I would be surprised if they do not). And indeed, whether their whole social system is maintained by a web of lies, as are so many of our social systems. And if they are lying, what are they lying about and what is the motivation for their lies? Having answers for those questions would shine a much stronger light on their abilities to think logically. For when humans or non-humans are about to lie they presumably have weighed the value of a successful lie, and/or the consequences of failing to lie. Both of those realizations involve rather complex levels understanding and generalizations.
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There is another approach that might give us strong insights into the dolphin mind. To put it bluntly: It should be possible, to some extent, to “psychoanalyze” a whale. For many years there was a male Orca, Hyak, in the Vancouver Aquarium, who liked looking at pictures of dolphins and other Orcas. When biologist John Ford was running that aquarium there was in his office, an underwater window into Hyak’s tank. Whenever John went to the window with a book and exposed a picture of an Orca or a dolphin, Hyak would come over to look at it, often looking at it for minutes, first with one eye, then the other. When his much smaller tank-mate (a female named Bjossa who dominated Hyak entirely) saw Hyak looking intently at something, she would come over, push him aside, and look at it herself. But after two or three seconds she would leave. But Hyak usually stared at images for as long as John showed him pictures.
Biologist David Bain and I visited two other Orcas and tried holding up pictures of Orcas and dolphins to them. They came over and looked for a few seconds and left. Neither displayed any obvious, lasting interest.

Hyak has since died, but surely there must be other captive Orcas interested in looking at pictures. If so, why not give them access to video sequences of orcas and dolphins, with the videos rigged to play in response to the whale pressing a lever. Over time the task could require that the whale must push the lever several times to make the video keep running or to keep a particular still image in view. One could determine from this what subjects orcas found most interesting by what they worked hardest to see, and at what moments in the action they lost interest and stopped pushing the lever—even though the action continued. Thus, might we learn a great deal about what interests Orcas—Orcas of the opposite sex? Fish? Orcas from the watcher’s own pod? Orcas from different pods? Orcas fighting? Orcas mating? Orcas giving birth?
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I knew two dolphins who were taught to take a paintbrush in their teeth and, while sculling hard enough with their tails to hold their entire bodies out of water in a vertical, posture, to paint on a canvas held by their trainer. Having made a few strokes with the brush, the dolphin would subside in the water, return the brush to the trainer and wait for a different brush with a different color, whereupon it would resume its painting. It seemed similar to what you or I might achieve if we had to paint by holding a brush in our teeth while balancing on a unicycle. It probably wouldn’t be our best work.

But imagine what a dolphin might paint if it had a few art lessons and could make its pictures on an underwater touch pad while assuming a relaxed position. Dolphin paintings sell for hundreds of dollars and gain in value depending on how many paintings exist in the oeuvre of a particular individual—all prices for its work jumping significantly, following the demise of the dolphin artist. Years ago I entered several dolphin paintings in a London art show. They attracted more buyers and higher prices than did the abstract paintings made by the professional human artists whose work was also present in that show during the two days that it ran.

Might dolphin art not give us a deeper understanding of the creative abilities of our fellow creatures and useful hints about their mental lives? After all artistic creations are even harder to characterize with precision than are the subtle differences between emotions such as fear or anger, and we are less likely to withhold our approval for a painting or a sculpture until someone can provide exact descriptors for what it is meant to represent. (Of course, the best art experts often do not agree among themselves as to what a particular work of art conveys. I see this as a richly fertile field within which to grow fresh adherents for the appreciation of non-human lifeforms that can engage our interest or fascination by their art. Such engagement is the very stuff that is needed if we are to understand the fact that we are completely interdependent with the rest of life on earth, and that to allow its destruction will assure our destruction.

As I see it, any approach that increases our appreciation for the rest of life—by which I mean non-human life—is an improvement over the present state in which most people think of non-humans as inferior and dull-witted. Some creatures have skills of observation and deduction that shock biologists, and move us out of our comfort zone wherein inappropriate generalities about the modest skills of our fellow travellers control the dialog. By gaining a deeper exposure to the creative abilities of our fellow creatures might we not gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of their mental capabilities and as a result judge them with greater respect, and be more inclined to recognize that they have rights that we no longer have the right to withold?

 

Dr. Roger Payne: Three Letters to my Granddaughter

I wrote the following blog in response to a beloved 14 year-old granddaughter, wise beyond her years, who emailed me to say that her latest school assignment was to ask a grandparent to describe two of the most memorable, historical, world or national events that they had encountered in their lives. With minor edits, this is what I wrote:

Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 1

One of two most memorable, historical, world/national events that has occurred in my life was hearing that Nelson Mandela had been released from Robben Island prison and was working with what I thought of as the racist, South African, apartheid government to end apartheid.

I had been in South Africa in 1974 and experienced Apartheid first-hand—up close and personal. The experience shocked me to the core. I had no idea how savage human beings could be to each other about something so infinitesimal, so inconsequential as the amount of pigmentation in another person’s skin. How could a species—ours—do so much damage when the motive was based on a set of assumptions so unexamined, ignorant, vicious and wrongheaded? I can’t think of anything that we could do that could cause so much damage for so little effort as racism causes. Is there any action you can think of, or way of expression that could hurt so many others for so little effort and so little reward and also rely entirely for its adoption of such an absurd motive?

If a person wishes the world to think of them as entirely ignorant I see no simpler way to accomplish that than to express racist sentiments publicly. Do it once; it will destroy your life. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the appalling fact that we have named our own species Homo sapiens—Latin, of course, for “wise man.”

Wise, my ass.

Not when it comes to our regard for ‘The Other’: other populations, other religions, other sexual preferences, other countries, other races, or, God help us… other, species than our own. But here was Nelson Mandela, a distinguished, dignified man, who wasted neither time nor words complaining about the massive indignities he had suffered from blindingly ignorant racists during his 26 years of imprisonment—a man so clearly more worthy than all of his detractors—the most distinguished statesman of my long life—more honest than Churchill, a braver champion of change than Roosevelt, the embodiment of courage—the best that humanity can boast… walking integrity.

As I watched Mandela in 1990 address a massive crowd in Boston I felt that here was the embodiment of what we might all aspire to be, and that the problem against which he had spent his entire life fighting was the ultimate symbol of ignorance and failure—the thing that keeps humanity small, deformed, twisted; the force that damages its practitioners even more than it damages their victims; the terrible gift that, keeps on giving; The hate that dare not speak its name—racism.

Sorry Luna, I am surprised (shocked?) to find I’m so angry about this topic. I didn’t fully realize how enraged racism makes me feel until I started to address your request. Thank you for the opportunity. I think that part of my anger comes from the fact that one of my closest friends in life was John Marshall, who spent all of his time and resources promoting the future of the San people of Southwestern Africa—the so-called bushmen—the speakers of a click language with whom your uncle John and his wife Annie lived for some years while learning that language, and on whose behalf your aunt Holly negotiated. I visited John and Annie there, along with John Marshall and found the Bushmen to be the most truly happy, well-adjusted people I had ever encountered. Their children spent entire days just jumping, jumping, jumping up and down in play—and, as far as you could tell, simply because they were happy—not how I’d characterize childhood for most of the children here in the US-of-A. And yet, whenever the San people end up in towns they go straight to the bottom of the social heap—where they were treated as if they were the very dregs of humanity—the most despised and disrespected of peoples—whereas, as even a blind person could see, they, as family men and women, are perhaps the best humanity has yet achieved. Or, well, to be more accurate: the best that other, racist/prejudiced humans have not succeeded in wiping out…yet.

Sweet Christ , what the Hell sort of a species are we?

 

Letter To My Granddauighter: Part 2

This blog takes up where the previous one left off. It is the second part of  what I wrote to my granddaughter when she asked me to answer two questions that her school had assigned for her to ask of a grandparent.

Dear Luna,

You asked me to name two major, memorable, historical, world or national events. The second one, Number 2, was when I first heard the songs of humpback whales and realized that they could melt the heart of anyone. I stopped what I was doing with Owls and began studying whales and working for their conservation. For the next seven years I was involved with a wave of extraordinary people who came and went (but many of whom stayed) as they let their interest in helping stop the wholesale extinction of non-humans take over their lives and their destinies.

For more than those seven years, that effort kept me in a kind of jubilance that came from seeing more and more people starting to take up residence in the company of wild species—dedicating their lives to protecting non-human lives. Our family moved to Patagonia, and helped to build a field station there, and lived with whales, and albatrosses, and Mora eagles, and sea lions, and cormorants, and lizards, and elephant seals and giant petrels and martinetas and calandrias. And I got to watch the health of the wild world flow into my children’s lives—including your mom’s. And later I got to watch her and her siblings spread out across the world while creating families and destinies of their own—fascinating lives that never could have existed for a family of our modest means in the years before my children were born.

That filled me with hope. But with age comes an increased comprehension of how hard an uphill battle it is to get others to do something, even when it’s clearly in their deepest interests to do it. Now, as I watch the world drifting towards the rocks, the hope that those years helped to build is becoming tinged with despair.

But with ever-fewer years of life ahead of me, I get wonderful glimpses, thrilling moments, whenever I see people of your generation rise to the challenge of doing something—any damn thing—on behalf of the wild world. Yet, I still fear that humanity is too blind, too selfish to save itself and with it the rest of complex, charismatic life. And I worry that because of its crafty, shifty, cleverness that our wiseacre species may manage to be among the last megafauna left standing.

However, if we achieve that we will also have triggered another problem that will kill us. It is based on the fact that we are entirely dependent on a suite of species that keeps the Earth habitable for us. Alas, we can’t name them all yet, but if we inadvertently bring any crucial member of that suite to extinction we won’t make it—even if it is some single-celled species that has never been named or even recognized.

I can imagine no way that complex life, no matter how alien, could exist without similar, interdependent species and so I propose that once a “smart” species has done as much damage to the stability of its planet as we have done to ours that it will find that it has destroyed the ability of its life-maintaining species to keep its planet habitable for complex life.

If such fates await earthlings and smart-species in other elsewheres in the universe, then no wonder we have so far failed to contact any intelligent, non-human life—even though love the attempt to do so and think of it as one of our most far-seeing moves.

As I see it, it only took our species about 500 years to develop and exploit the benefits that science can bring our species while at the same time devastating much of world with overconsumption. Therefore, I think it is likely that complex life on any planet that eventually includes a big-brained adopter and practitioner of the scientific method, will probably require something like 500 years to get to a similarly chaotic point in their history as we have already reached in ours.

However, even if that comes to pass and the world goes back to single-celled life or even early multicelled life, I suspect that after several tens, or hundreds of millions of years the world will produce another Eden of wildness in which there will be a very different, smart species. But because that species will inevitably be shaped by the selfishness for which blind evolution selects, I fear that it may turn out to be just as incapable of avoiding the short-term benefits of destroying its less-heedful neighbor species as we are, and have ever been, and that it therefore will shatter the complex life that developed along with it. And because it will be entirely interdependent with that life, just as we are with non-human life, its fate may be the same that I fear is most likely to be ours — self-destruction.

The reason for this gloomy prediction is that the power of the scientific method to reward its practitioners will always be apparent long before the slow, long-term, negative consequences of such short sighted behavior become menacing enough to compel “smart” species to awaken to the need to change their behavior. If I am right, it is likely that no smart species anywhere is likely to be able to survive a largescale adoption of the scientific method for much longer than our species has—i.e., about 500 years.

Howerver, in comparison with geological time 500 years is a brutally short time—the history of life is at least 7 million times longer. So if you think that a thousand years is a fairer estimate of how long it may take for the scientific method to enable smart species to destabilize its natural world, I’m glad to accept that number; it does no significant damage my argument; a thousand years is but 3.6 millionths of the history of life on Earth.

But no matter how you look at it, there is a vanishingly small chance that two such relatively short time periods would co-occur on Earth and on some planet circling a nearby star—a star close enough for earthlings to detect evidences of the existence of the aliens on that planet. Close enough means it would have to be one of only a handful of stars, for there are only a few close enough to the sun to enable anything that might be considered practical communication. The problem is the requirement that smart earthlings and smart planetings would both have to be in the final few years of the roughly 500-1000 year period when both had arrived at enough understanding to make serious attempts to look for evidence of each other, but before either had caused enough chaos on their home planet to render it incapable of supporting the stable infrastructure and well-ordered civilization required for any serious attempt at interplanetary contact. That is pretty much the same as saying that each civilization must be at the same point in their intellectual and social development at the same moment in universal time. Pretty big requirement!

The absurdly low possibility of co-occurrence in time between a close-enough star and Earth may even explain the famous Fermi paradox, first proposed by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Enrico Fermi. The story is that during an informal meal with colleagues Fermi argued as follows:

  • There are billions of stars in our galaxy similar to the Sun, many of which are billions of years older than the Sun and its planets.
  • There’s a high probability that tens of millions of Sun-like stars have Earth-like planets (an assumption that has since received strong support).
  • If the Earth is typical, then many non-Earth planets in our galaxy should have evolved civilizations that have adopted the scientific method and may also have mastered interstellar travel.
  • And even if they have found no way to go significantly faster than we believe to be the practical speed limit, enough time has passed for some of them to have crossed the Milky Way galaxy, which means that even millions of years ago, the Earth could well have been visited by aliens from other-worlds—though there is no evidence yet that that ever happened.

Fermi was curious about the complete lack of evidence for such visits or the existence of aliens, and it was during this informal discussion that he asked, famously: “Where is everybody?”—the question now known as the Fermi Paradox.

My dear Luna, I am sorry this is so much of a downer, but I assume that you wanted to hear what I believe is the truth even though we both know my beliefs are very likely to be wrong or to contain only a moiety of truth. However, I do believe that anyone can deal with anything no matter how unpleasant, as long as it is presented as close to the truth as its advocates can offer it up.

To me the bottom line is that as of now I feel the chances we humans can save ourselves from our self-inflicted folly will only exist if we respond to the need to change with global urgency. That is why I hope that you and your generation will recognize and respond to what has been called “the fierce urgency of now.” For if you manage to achieve a global response, you will someday be able to boast that you saved the world from the blindness of that generation that preceded you… ours.

All love, dear Luna,

Grandad

 

Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 3

Hi Dear Luna,

It was so late last night [4:00 AM] when I sent my email to you that I forgot to include the very essence of what I had wanted to say, which was to send you a short article and video about Greta Thunberg, a Swedish, 16-year-old girl who is changing the world. Rather than hear me rehash her successes, please have a look at this video:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/21/greta-thunberg-tells-eu-your-greenhouse-gas-targets-are-too-low?CMP=share_btn_link

It is one of the most powerful speeches I’ve heard; it fills me with hope. It is a classic example of how massive the contribution by women can be—even women in their teens. Her wisdom is extraordinary. She has created a movement that is already sweeping Europe and North America and, I would guess, will soon sweep across much of the rest of the world. Please have a look at the video of her speaking and tell me what you think of how well she focuses on the fierce necessity of taking action.

One of the most interesting outcomes of her movement is the adult leaders who have managed to trip over Greta Thunberg’s message and find themselves on the wrong side of the issue. The head of the EU in Brussels is an example as is Teresa May, prime minister of Great Britain, who made a fool of herself criticizing Greta Thunberg’s movement. And so did Diane Feinstein, a democratic congressperson from California who has done wonderful things over several decades in the US Congress, but completely blew it when a class of young students and their teachers occupied her office in an effort to get her to take stronger action on the environment. She spoke down to them, talking about how she had a lifetime of experience that they lacked and that they should learn to listen and to leave it up to her and her plans for a greener world. Here’s a 2-minute video of the unfortunate exchange:

https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/02/24/sen_dianne_feinstein_argues_with_children_over_green_new_deal.html

After having thus blown it completely, Feinstein soon realized her mistake and by the following day was back-peddling madly, trying to spin her reaction at the meeting so her words would do less damage to her than they clearly are doing (damage that will dog her for a long time). I could only wish she had faced up to her mistake, admitted her guilt and requested forgiveness.

Very disappointing, but a wonderful example that the time for people my age has come, and been, and gone, while the time for people of your age is here—and not just people your age, but, particularly, young women of your age. Notice, for example that in these most important actions it is girls who are leading; you see damn few young boys of that age group (boys your age are most notable by their absence). So that’s the message that I managed to omit last night when my brain was fuzzed with fatigue: the time is here for your generation, and for your gender to lead.

So… Go For It!!

Sending Love,

Granddad

Overpopulation, the key to the human predicament

At the root of humanity’s biggest problems is the fact that there are too many of us. Yet there seems to be an unwritten law against even discussing how to find ways that are fair to stop the population explosion and to work towards a human population that the planet can sustain. Whenever I’ve raised this point, the standard objection has been that any step that reduces the world population will put most of the stress on the poor—those who have only just become poised to experience an improved standard of living. We don’t have the right to diminish their opportunity to enjoy the same sized families that we’ve had and that have enriched our lives so much.

The weakness of this argument is the assumption on which it’s based: that everyone wants as many children as they have. All of us are better at justifying after the fact the things that disappoint us, when it would obviously be to our detriment to complain of them. Assuming that a pregnant woman always wants a big family ignores the fact that her feelings may be quite different before and after she discovers she’s pregnant— particularly different if it is her third or fourth pregnancy and her first two children are healthy. She may even find the idea of a third or fourth pregnancy abhorrent. However, once her child is born, it is overwhelmingly likely that she will love it unconditionally.

My first wife, Katy, and I had four children, and I have experienced personally how differently one can feel before a pregnancy and after the birth that is its outcome.

Katy and I married young. We were both still at University and we wanted to delay childrearing. But it was back in the bad old days before The Pill had become widely available. There were, however, four commonly-used methods of birth control at the time, and we tried them all. They all failed.

Method One was tricky; we were careless; pregnancy followed. But when our eldest son, John, was born we loved him unconditionally. His presence neutralized our previous thoughts about wanting to delay starting a family.

Nevertheless it seemed like a good idea to postpone having more kids for at least a couple of years. Surely, Method Two would prove better than Method One. But soon Katy was pregnant again and Holly was born, and she stole our hearts blind.

OK two kids; That’s fine, but no family needs more than that. We tried Method 3; it didn’t work; Katy got pregnant and Laura followed, and again our pre-birth opinion was silenced by our love for a third child.

Well… now all that was left was Method 4, and it damn well had to work! But soon Katy was pregnant with our fourth child, who turned out to be Sam, and he too was, and is, adored.

It was time to do something different; something that might actually work. For a woman to have her tubes tied required a general anesthetic, whereas the equivalent for a man (a vasectomy) only required a local anesthetic. It was clear that it was best for the man to have the operation. So I got one of the earliest vasectomies—so early, in fact, that even though we were living in New York City, I couldn’t find a medical doctor who’d do it. And in the end, I got a vasectomy from a veterinarian.

We now had four children under the age of 3 1⁄2 with three in diapers (that we had to launder—disposable diapers being too expensive and not reliably available).

Did we want each child before Katy got pregnant? No. Did we want each of them after they were born? Yes. Absolutely. Once they appeared, we wanted each and every one of them with every fiber of our beings.

And since their birth, how have we felt about them? We have loved each of them completely.

But Katy bore a major cost; it was 6 years after our first child was born before she had enough time to begin working on the songs of whales, and it took a decade more before she had the time to study elephants and discover their sub-sonic vocabulary. Before those triumphs her pregnancies, nursing and infant care had stopped her from finishing a postgraduate degree on ant behavior that she’d started at Harvard under E. O. Wilson.

I suspect that worldwide there are probably hundreds of millions (if not billions) of women who didn’t want to spend so much of their youths pregnant, nursing babies and in infant care, and who were introduced to poverty or kept under its thumb by unstoppable motherhood. I suspect that many of them would have been happier having fewer children (or even none) even though they love fully every child they had.

I believe that my theory is strengthened by the fact that when couples have access to free birth control and are taught how to use it effectively, and the women have access to education and see that there are things they could do that would interest them as much or more than raising yet more children, the result is always the same—falling birth rates.

Reciting such a result may make me sound to you like an arrogant prick who thinks that he’s dispensing candied drops of wisdom like jelly beans to the masses. But what I am fumblingly trying to impart is a fact that scientists have discovered that impressed me greatly, and as a scientist myself I’m likely to be somewhat ham-handed at getting it across, because one of the main tenets of science that you learn early and often is that life doesn’t operate and is not understood on the basis of absolutes it operates and is understood on the basis of probabilities. What you can deduce is not absolutely known it is known to some extent that you hope to measure and to take into account. When I describe the effects of offering women an education as well as free means of birth control I do not think that all the women responded by reducing their family size; I am confident that there was a huge variety of responses that probably varied across a spectrum that went from absolute rejection, through disgust to “well OK,” to gratitude. But speaking probabilistically the thing that fascinates me as a scientist is that if you provide women from the most diverse backgrounds (from people who live in felt houses on the Mongolian Steppe to ladies in haute couture, breezing down some of the world’s most sophisticated avenues) with an education and free means of birth control which someone who knows the uses and limitations of those means teaches them to use effectively, you get the same result: lowering birth rates. I find that a fascinating and useful outcome that could have a positive effect in alleviating what I consider one of humanity’s biggest problems. How different would it be if some non-scientific elders told a thousand young women to read an ancient text about raising sheep and gave them free condoms and told them how to use them most effectively, whereupon although some of them were disgusted and insulted that the elder’s texts were so out-of-date, just enough others reduced their family size that that the overall birth rate of the group of 1,000 women fell. Would you not be interested in that result? Would it mean that the elders were charlatans who were sticking their noses into things that were none of their business and thereby denigrating those young women? I would think that the elders somehow had an effect on people which, though I didn’t understand how it worked had resulted in a positive overall outcome and if none of the young women had been tricked or coerced I would think it was a useful technique to lower birth rates, even if I had no idea why it worked as it did.

I realize, of course, that men would also presumably benefit from being educated about the subject of family-begetting and family-raising, but whether they would benefit as much as they ought (or as women seem to) seems doubtful to me given that men have a far lower investment in their children than do women (men can beget hundreds of children whereas the record for women is in the low 20s). Because of that we men seem to spend much of our fertile years struggling with the effects of testosterone poisoning. And just as it is not very realistic to try to get socially acceptable behavior out of a male elephant in musth, I suspect that although it is useful to educate men that it will prove to be less successful in lowering populations than has been shown to result from educating women.

Another important aspect of this surprising path to reducing birth rates is the fact that it is voluntary, not punitive. As I have written before, it is not like China’s now-revoked policy which penalized couples for having more than one child. It works without anyone forcing anyone to do anything. There’s nothing mandatory about it. Each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether they want to use contraceptives. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

The all too human reason this approach works is the natural inclination of women and men everywhere to want to do more with their lives than raising ever more children. So if young women get an education and have access to free contraceptives, it turns out that a significant number of them will use the opportunity to postpone or avoid pregnancies, with the result that the birth rate falls.

Another factor that contributes to the success of this approach is surely the satisfaction of being able to bestow greater benefits on each of your children if you don’t have to divide your resources among so many.

I realize, of course that one of the probabilistic aspects of the approach I am promoting is that the power to make decisions of many women is not equal to the power that men keep for themselves in their families and so, in many cases, women are culturally overridden by men and by religion. For example, it is known that the technique I describe doesn’t work in cultures in which men prevent their partners from using birth control because much of their street cred is based on how many children they’ve fathered. But in global terms such cultures are small and are under pressure to modernize. And anyway; show me any approach to any problem that works without exception and I’ll show you that you haven’t examined it closely enough.

It is also true that some backwards religions have major objections to contraception, thereby condemning their poorest parishioners to the consequences of uncontrolled fecundity. But even in countries where the dominant religion strongly opposes birth control, educating women results in lower birthrates. For example, the populations of the two EU countries with the lowest birthrates are 99 percent and 90 percent Catholic.

I was raised in a culture that gave me all of the benefits of a healthy, well-fed, well-educated, comfortable, secure life. Nevertheless, I fathered more than my share of children. Whenever I suggest publicly that the human population is too high, I am laughed at, even by those who share my feelings that overpopulation lies at the root of humanity’s major problems. The laughter is based on the false assumption that if you have made a mistake, any advice you have to offer on that subject is worthless.

I have thought a lot about having had so many children and even though I love each of them entirely, I can see that having so many was in some deep sense selfish and shortsighted. But I can also see that my advice about having so many children is not laughable. I have spent a lot of my life at sea and I would much rather have advice about a dangerous reef from someone who put his boat on that reef, and who has since thought long and hard about his mistake and what he should have done to avoid it—and who also respects the reef because he knows how easy it would be to fail again (this last point being, perhaps, the best indicator of an opinion that may be of value). I find advice from such a source far more useful than advice from someone who has never gone aground on any reef and who thinks that reefs are easy to avoid, and that people who hit them do so because they conform to a careless, daredevil type.

Because having a child is such a profoundly involving and moving experience, one may greatly benefit from considering as deeply as possible the complex consequences of deciding not to have a child or of adopting a child who can profit so much from the support that family life provides.

I believe that by considering the question deeply and thoughtfully, one is likely to identify several paths to fulfillment in their life—and find several alternative answers to what can benefit the future, and that each such answer offers different advantages.

Fake News is the Winner, and the Winner Takes It All

Well… talk about things getting worse! On April 7, 2018, I heard a radio broadcast of the NPR show, Radio Lab which is the most terrifying, new development I’ve yet had to process. The segment is entitled: The Future of Fake News. Find it here . I have no words strong enough to express how important I think it is for everyone to hear. The program describes how close computer scientists are to perfecting the tools that will make it possible for anyone to change the words that anyone else says about any subject (e.g.: global warming; voter fraud; war crimes; politicians’ sex-scandals; etc.) in a way that is entirely believable, yet entirely devoid of the truth.

The program examines “progress” in computer science that is making it possible to create both audio and video fake news clips in which you hear a completely believable recording or see a completely convincing video of some leader or celebrity whose voice you know and trust, speaking words and sentences they never said and would never support. And yet, they speak so convincingly and confidently, that even though this technology is still under development, neither you nor I nor anyone else, including the speaker, has any way to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the fake sound-bite or fake video clip is, in fact, the total fraud that it is.

The reason I find this technology so depressing is that all my life I have thought of the truth as the One Hope—the only hope—the only force strong enough to enable us to reverse the problems we create for all life including us—the only thing with enough power and authority to save us from ourselves. But now the computer revolution has made it possible to cast the strongest doubts on even the most solid scientific truths—Natural Laws—those laws of Nature that control everything in the universe, and has done so even though Natural Laws are the most important scientific ideas that those who think our species is exempt from Natural Laws need to understand and learn to accept and trust. Yet… those who have no interest in whether future generations get to experience a future will soon have use of a technology that can cast false doubts on things like global warming, ocean acidification, pollution of land, air and water; sea level rise; the future flooding of coastal cities; the importance of living sustainably; etc.

Several articles and blogs about this subject have come out in recent months but the reason I recommend the Radio-Lab production is because it explains this development in ways we all can understand, and it draws its final conclusions carefully and convincingly. It also interviews some of the computer programmers who are building these systems and you get to hear firsthand how totally asleep they are to the moral implications of their efforts.

Hitherto this technology that I find so unsettling has required many hours of a computer specialist’s time to create even one soundbite a few seconds long. But now anyone with a smartphone will be able to make more realistic fake news clips, and do so in real time. For example, a program already exists that makes fake acoustic clips. It involves the analysis of 20 to 40 minutes of recordings of your victim speaking about pretty much anything. This program then classifies each syllable they said and divides it into small slices of its component frequencies so that when you want to have your victim speak a word in their own voice that they didn’t say, those frequencies and the emotional context in which they were spoken will be chosen by the program to match the statement you wrote for them to say. This program already makes fraudulent recordings that sound authentic.

The programs for making fake videos that will soon be available are no less convincing.

First, you find or create as many head-on shots of your victim speaking as you can. Next, you shoot a video of yourself head-on, saying any words you like. The program will then create a video of your victim saying exactly those same words and imparting to them the same stresses that you used, only the resulting video of the victim will be entirely and convincingly them even though they will be saying your words. The victim will speak in their own voice, with their own personal tonalities, their own subtleties of pronunciation and sound-shading that make up their themness, and yet they will be saying your words, and with the same enthusiasm, seriousness and emphases that you used when you said them. In effect, your victim will have become the ultimate puppet and you the ultimate puppeteer.

Using your smart phone you could make a video of a conversation between, say, our president and some news anchor, in which one (or both) of the talking heads were saying things that neither person had said in the interview. And the whole thing could be made in time to be uploaded to the nightly newsfeed on the same day the real interview happened.

Or suppose that you wanted to take over some country but didn’t want to be guilty of firing the first shot. You could use a news clip of that country’s leader declaring war on your country, add a few never-before-broadcast clips of bomb blasts, followed by a live feed in which you reluctantly announce that your hand has been forced and you are retaliating. Because the major networks would seek two or more authorities to verify your fake news clip before broadcasting it you could also manufacture clips with the voices and images of two or three appropriate authorities, each confirming the authenticity of your news clip.

For me, the most chilling aspect of this technology is that at present it is apparently not possible to expose unequivocally these fake news audios and videos as the frauds they are.

Simon Adler, co-producer of The Future of Fake News, expresses his main worry about this development this way: “This is all occurring within a context of massive news illiteracy, and the consumers seem to be just throwing their hands up—tiring of trying even to figure it out.” He then expresses the hope that today’s teenagers will prove to be; “willing to do the work, maybe out of self-interest, maybe so they aren’t dissed by, you know, the girl in social studies. But that’s our best hope for overcoming it, because everybody else seems to be sick of trying.”

“Because everybody else seems to be sick of trying.” Since the Trump administration came to power that is precisely what I have observed in the attitudes of some of my fellow conservationists. They are sick of trying. It is something I am seeing for the first time in 50 years. The chillingly ignorant reversals that the current administration has unleashed against everything that a generation of well-qualified, well-respected, well-informed conservation biologists worked to secure are being destroyed so effectively by such seamlessly ill-informed Trump appointees that it is hard even to list the extent of the disasters and failures that the current administration has caused and is causing—let alone to make a logical plan for how to reverse them. Which gives me the impression that some conservation biologists are “tiring of trying even to figure it out.”

Furthermore, this dual attack on the future—these two technologies that enable such flawless fakery, are so tightly linked that they employ identical means to destroy our children’s future: they do it by casting-doubt-on, and/or annihilating, scientifically-established truths. To do so, each depends on the generally incomplete understanding of ordinary people like you and me, about computers or principles of biology, or both.

This new technology sounds the death knell of anyone being able to believe anything that is spoken or videoed. It is the ultimate achievement in creating an environment in which entirely convincing but totally fraudulent governance can grab the reins.

It is the end of truth.  And if the Bible is right; that “the truth shall set you free,” then this new technology also spells the end of freedom. This is how to make our nation doubt everything it once stood for and that made it great, including its former confidence in what are, in fact, the inalienable truths that we held to be self-evident.

Killed by a Whale

On July 10th, 2017, Joe Howlett, 59, father of two and a lobster fisherman from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada was killed by a northern right whale he had just helped to untangle from a snarl of fishing gear. Mackie Green, Howlett’s partner in rescuing whales and a co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said that Howlett had previously participated in some two dozen disentanglements and was both highly experienced and skilled in doing it. He said the details of the situation are being investigated but all that is known so far is that just after the last line entangling the whale had been cut: “Some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip,”

I have discussed this tragedy with several who have claimed that disentangling a whale is “Asking for trouble,” “Nuts,” and “Insane.” “You gotta be crazy to do such a dangerous thing” is a typical remark. And although that sounds reasonable enough, it turns out that these opinions are based on fear and inexperience. After all, you are in a small boat, a zodiac, trying to free an animal that’s bigger than most private yachts and has been under life-threatening stress for hours, days, weeks, or months; and you pull up near it while the propeller on your boat is making a loud, screaming noise. It would not be unreasonable for the whale to conclude that you have come to attack. It only adds fuel to that assumption when you begin tugging on the ropes entangling the whale, because often, some of them pass through open wounds on its body—something that is surely hellishly painful to the whale.

As if further proof were needed about the gravity of the danger you face, the whale is in its element—seawater—in which it is an agile, fully skilled challenger, whereas, you in your zodiac are little more than a helpless, onlooker—having turned off your motor when you arrived to avoid frightening the whale any worse than you already have.

That is the kind of story that fear paints. However, experience tells a very different story. The fact is that despite the clearly scary circumstances in which one finds oneself when disentangling a whale, the evidence of thousands of such disentanglements shows that the whale does not try to strike you. Instead (and for reasons that are counterintuitive), it seems to catch on fast that you are trying to help—some individuals even seem to cooperate by holding still or rolling slowly as you unwind some long net section. The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, one of the pioneers in freeing entangled whales, is reported as saying that Joe Howlett’s death is the first fatality since whale rescues began, back in the early 1980s.

The US is not alone in developing techniques for disentangling whales from fishing gear, the Canadians also pioneered such techniques and both countries’ methods are widely used today. Many were developed by my late friend, Newfoundlander Jon Lien. Over his lifetime, Jon and his team rescued over 1,000 humpback whales from fishing gear without anyone sustaining a serious injury. His presence was not just a godsend to the whales but to the fishermen who owned the nets which, before Jon’s efforts, had often been destroyed or carried away by the whale—with devastating consequences to the fishermen’s lives.

At Ocean Alliance we have studied the behavior of right whales for 47 years and it is clear from that experience that right whales are tail fighters. But they don’t slap with their tails—they strike with them edge-on by making lateral, slashing blows. The thing I would like to know most is what that “big flip,” was that the whale made. Did it slap Joe with the flat of its tail or strike him with a lateral slash? Because if it was a tail slap I would strongly suspect it was not intended to cause harm—that the whale was just accelerating away and the result was a tragic accident that killed Joe—a ghastly mistake, not a tail-slash struck in anger.

There are, of course, dangers involved in disentangling whales, which is why it should only be attempted by professionals with lots of experience—never by the public (doing so is, in fact, illegal and subject to heavy fines). However, the fact that this activity is safer than it looks is so counterintuitive that even though thousands of whale disentanglements have been achieved without incident and for decades, when news broke that Joe Howlett had been killed, the first action the Canadian and US fisheries authorities took was to put a stop to all future disentangling efforts—an announcement that annoyed a lot of people, including me. I vented my anger by drafting this blog. Fortunately, I set what I had written aside (my intention was to make a more stinging rebuke the following day). Mackie Green, Howlett’s co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, expressed best what we were all thinking when he said; “Joe definitely would not want us to stop because of this. This is something he loved and there’s no better feeling than getting a whale untangled, and I know how good he was feeling after cutting that whale clear.”

So… should we stop the activity of disentangling whales? Well, should we stop welcoming dogs into our families? After all, dogs have killed hundreds of people over the years. Horses have killed thousands, but should we therefore try to stop our children from falling in love with horses? I once met a logging elephant in Nepal who had killed six people in her life—the last two, her handlers said, because she had witnessed them stealing rice from her daily food allowance.

And I have sympathy for the head ranger in the Sundarbans National Park and Biosphere Reserve (basically, the delta of the Ganges River) who must defend man-eating tigers from the people who have lost spouses and children to the tigers and want the tigers exterminated.

Any discussion of such examples as these eventually leads to the question of how important our species is and how big a deal the role is that we actually play on this planet. As I have said on other occasions, my view is that we are not the star of the show, but just another pretty face—one species among millions of other beguiling species—and unless we stop trying to upstage Nature, the show can’t go on. As a matter of cold, hard fact, our role is unimportant—a walk-on, a bit part. We aren’t important to the main act—life on earth. It can get along fine without us. It did just that for 2.5 billion years and if we self-destruct will continue to get along just fine—probably better.

However, bacteria, and moulds and plankton and nematode worms are important. Life can’t make it without them. But it can exist without us, and if we ignore our errors and destroy the conditions that support us by allowing global warming, ocean acidification, ocean pollution, overpopulation, and overconsumption to go unchecked, our kind won’t survive.

Many bacteria will survive, however, and in due time they will make the earth relivable for whatever life forms succeed us (unless we have knocked the life support balance too far out of whack with something like a runaway greenhouse effect).

We need to find a role to play that will enable us to fit in sustainably and therefore to survive (and have life survive), because that approach is our only hope if we are to have any more than a fleeting future.

Fortunately, before I embarrassed myself by sending out my first draft of this blog, the fisheries authorities clarified their position by pointing out that they had declared a temporary halt to disentanglements solely to enable an investigation that might shed light on what happened, in case they could find something that could be avoided in future to lower the chance that this tragedy would be repeated. When I read that, I was grateful for having to modify my words, because I saw that our species is moving towards enlightenment and that the need for people to recognize the inalienable rights of the rest of life is starting to be recognized. Sure, the process is moving glacially slowly, but it is moving, and that is cause for celebration, just as surely as the death of Joe Howlett is cause for mourning. For their role in giving us that ray of hope I thank the fisheries authorities of Canada and the United States.

My heart goes out to Howlett’s family, for whom this tragedy is a calamity beyond expressing. Because it didn’t happen to me I have the luxury of seeing it in a different light. To me, Joe Howlett is an inspiration, a man years ahead of his time who stepped in to help another species that was suffering. It was an act unsurpassed for decency and morality. He was willing to take risks, which, though they are usually benign, are, when things go wrong, deadly. He certainly knew that. But he acted anyway.

Although I have spent the past 50 years studying whales and working to save them I never met Joe, although we shared the same atypical mission. But I admire him entirely because he was doing something of which our species—any species—could be unreservedly proud. He was showing the way, taking action in response to another species’ distress. Within our species, racism is a heinous offense to all things positive and decent; within the broader world, speciesism is equally reprehensible. Overcoming racism and speciesism are the central problems of our time—the defining achievements that we must accomplish.

We hear daily that we should pitch in to make a difference—should step up. But few do it; our lives are overwhelmingly Business As Usual. Joe Howlett, did do something—he risked his life to save a member of another species that was suffering. In the past, whales and dolphins have done that for humans; he returned the favor. In my opinion that makes him a hero. His children can be proud of him through all eternity. He didn’t get to see them grow old, but the mark he made is something they can cherish forever.

The Biggest Threat of All

It is generally accepted by scientists that the worst threat humanity faces, and has ever faced, is global warming. So widespread is this assumption that I suspect anyone suggesting a different worst-threat would be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, I have long believed that ocean acidification is a worse threat than global warming, simply because the time it will take for ocean acidification to reach a point where it can wreak its maximum havoc is apparently much shorter than the time it will take for global warming to raise the temperature of the earth enough to unleash its worst effects. (Ocean acidification is estimated to require decades to do its worst, whereas Global warming is estimated to require a century or centuries.) The reason for focusing on the oceans is that they are the principle force that stabilizes the conditions on this planet that enable life. So even if you live at the center of this continent, say, in Kansas, and have never even seen the ocean, it’s a fair bet that if the oceans die you will die too, because of the loss of stability in the natural world that surrounds you.
We have all heard that global warming is largely the result of burning fossil fuels and that humans have already caused the greatest increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) in nearly 3 million years (and probably much longer, although that can’t be confirmed until several gaps in the temperature record get filled in).

Global warming is caused by CO2trapping heat, whereas ocean acidification is caused by CO2combining chemically with water to produce carbonic acid—a reaction that produces highly reactive hydrogen ions that combine readily with the very chemicals that shellfish and corals need to make their protective coverings. When ocean acidity is increased it becomes increasingly difficult or impossible for shellfish to secrete their shells and corals to form reefs. However, these structures are what protect molluscs and corals from an ocean’s worth of crafty, awe-inspiring, sometimes microscopic, predators.

Although global warming is caused by CO2trapping heat, and ocean acidification is caused by CO2combining chemically with water to produce carbonic acid, there is a third problem that is caused when the interiors of living cells are exposed to carbonic acid. This problem is called metabolic drag.

A great deal of research in the past 30 years has refined our understanding of the effects of CO2on global warming but research on ocean acidification has been under-funded and lags far behind. However, an even greater hole in our understanding of how the global buildup of CO2affects all life are the consequences of CO2entering live cells and increasing their acidity.
Very recent research shows that the higher the CO2concentration in a cell, the more it affects such important cellular functions as oxygen transport and protein synthesis. Furthermore, in dealing with these effects the organism has to use energy it would otherwise have available for doing, well… everything else it does. The result is a reduction in vigor, which, even if it doesn’t kill a cell outright (or the owner of that cell), makes cells and their owners more susceptible to a long list of stresses that reduce any organism’s fitness (and often kill it following a suitable delay). This process is called metabolic drag.

The worst effect of CO2on humans will not be the flooding of coastal cities caused by melt-water from glaciers and ice caps, or the increase in extreme weather events. Far worse damage will be caused by changes in the courses and strengths of oceanic and atmospheric currents that will move the boundaries of the habitats within which animals and plants can live and crops can grow, poleward by tens, hundreds and in some cases even thousands of miles. Such shifts will take decades to complete during which the cells within all ocean life will be experiencing a kind of chemical chaos from the increased CO2 and carbonic acid inside them.

The warming of this planet, along with the behavioral processes I have described, takes place much more slowly than do the fatal effects of ocean acidification. But acids don’t mess around; even very modest increases in acidity can weaken microscopic plants and zooplankton. That’s because the more acidic the seawater, the more species it kills, and the quicker it does so.

Although zooplankton are tiny, their importance is massive: for they are the food of the small fish, that are food of the larger fish, that are the food for the fish we depend on. So when a plankton species dies, its food chain dies, and the victims may include people who depended on the fish that lived at the top of that plankton’s pyramid.

Unfortunately, even the most important plankton species turn out to be so little-known that almost no one can recognize or name them. An example is the pteropods—a group of planktonic species that are major food sources for many species of ocean fish, as well as for baleen whales. Even their common names: sea butterflies and sea angels, are unfamiliar to most biologists. They are tiny, free-swimming, open-ocean snails and sea slugs, that are present in staggering numbers, worldwide, and at all latitudes. They are usually found less than 500 meters below the surface and are most abundant over continental shelves, where they form dense groups—a behavior that whales exploit to capture them. It is because of the staggering abundance of some of these little-known species that it is sometimes said that they control ocean productivity.

93% of pteropods have shells; the remaining 7% lack them. The shelled species are vulnerable to ocean acidification. Exposure to seawater at acidity levels that the oceans are expected to reach by 2050 dissolve the shells of pteropods completely—which is fatal to them.

We may get used to (become inured to?) global warming, ocean acidification, and metabolic drag, but then, more research soon appears that offers a yet bleaker future, and underlines even more clearly the urgency of the need to act. And sure enough, just this week, a new threat was revealed in a paper by a group in Hawaii that studied the effects of the ultraviolet in sunlight on the more than 8 billion tons of plastics that humanity has produced since we started manufacturing it in the 1950s. (Yes, billion with a “b,” and yes, tons—in fact, metric tons, each of which is 2,200 pounds, not a measly 2000). The group in Hawaii studied the effects on seven kinds of plastics of exposure for several days to UV light, both in air and in water. Their sample included the most abundant plastic polymer: polyethylene (the polymer found in more than a third of all types of plastic). The group analyzed the gases that the plastics released, discovering thereby that the breakdown products of all seven of the plastics they tested produce greenhouse gases (principally methane, which is 30 times more powerful in trapping heat than CO2and persists in the atmosphere for centuries). They also found that the most abundant plastics, the polyethylenes, produce the most greenhouse gases by far.

All of the plastics tested also release ethylene—a gas that is the second most abundant hydrocarbon pollutant in the atmosphere and that is implicated in the creation of Carbon monoxide.

These rather grim results led the authors of the paper to conclude that: “Due to the longevity of plastics and the large amounts of plastic persisting in the environment, questions related to the role of methane and ethylene global budgets should be prioritized and addressed by the scientific community.” That is scientist-speak for… “Uh Oh, World; this looks serious.”

It is surprising that a problem that seems so obvious and was hiding in plain sight has been almost completely ignored until now, but it is always surprising how often that is the case. Furthermore, the contribution of the gases that we now know are released by deteriorating plastics has never yet been included in any climate models.

It is clear that global warming, ocean acidification, and metabolic drag are a triple threat. However, they are a triple threat of which most people are unaware and whose name most people don’t even know. But knowing a name is not enough; we need to understand what causes them if we are to stop the problem.

It is well to note that global warming, ocean acidification and metabolic drag are not causes, they are symptoms. Their main, underlying cause is the burden that CO2places on all life—the name for which is “the carbon burden.”
So… my concern as to whether ocean acidification or global warming is the bigger threat seems misplaced; both are symptoms of the carbon burden, though ocean acidification may become intolerable soonest. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the biggest threat that we, along with all life on earth face is not just something called global warming, or ocean acidification or metabolic drag, but the mutually self-reinforcing, combined threat that is the sum of those three threats, a sum that is called the carbon burden. It is the carbon burden that is the biggest threat, but even though it is the biggest threat we face we don’t yet understand its full dimensions.

As Carl Safina put it so well; [ref.]
“It is and always has been about carbon. We need to place carbon back in the center of the equation. From atmosphere to ocean to cell, the carbon burden is the problem… and the more we learn, the more its dimensions appear ever more staggering.”

So how surprising: our greatest threat is not the economy, or congress, or the liberal agenda or the conservative agenda, or the nanny state, or terrorists, or the national debt, or the costs of the perpetual war on terror, or the ebola virus, or whether our president gets to build his wall, or no gun laws, or even, dare I say it… all-out nuclear war. In spite of how ghastly the devastation may be from any of those causes, time is likely, eventually, to reverse the misery they create. No… the main threat is not humans versus humans—us vs them. The worst threat comes when we trigger the mass destruction of the rest of life—the non-human species on which we are utterly dependent. And the most likely way we can achieve that threat is not through violent acts of aggression, but by failure to stop the slow and ponderous but effective imposition of the carbon burden on all life, simply because the carbon burden is such an effective way to devastate life on earth.

If the carbon burden is the greatest threat, what caused it? We caused it. In fact we’re still causing it; it’s our worst own-goal—a self-inflicted wound that we must staunch before we waste any more time or energy or treasure doing anything else. As Pogo, a beguiling cartoon character of the 1950s said; “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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