Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Deep Ecology: Like a Norse deity wielding Mjöllnir to the face of modern life

Mjölnir the hammer of the Thunder God Thor is depicted in Norse mythology as one of the most fearsome of weapons, capable of levelling mountains. I find this appropriate because deep ecology created by the late Arne Naess is both an overwhelming attack on modern thinking that is born from deep historical and indeed mountainous roots and widely discredited in academic circles at the same time!

Arne Naess was a classical philosopher of the most stringent kind. He studied philosophy at Oslo, and then went on to do postgraduate work at Paris then Vienna. He joined the famous Vienna circle and even underwent psychoanalysis with one of Freud’s associates.

(Arnie Naess as most people knew him)

His postgraduate work “Knowledge and Scientific Behaviour,” was pure and complete analytical philosophy, grounded in the logical positivist school of thought (there is one right answer about a given question, and science (and only science!) is, in theory, capable of finding it out). He then went on to do important work on language and interpretation using set theory (a framework originally developed in mathematics to help answer questions about infinity) and founded the well respected philosophical journal Inquiry.

Deep ecology began as a personal philosophy that was never intended to be published. It was called ecosophy T, the T standing for the Tvergastein Mountain. The mountain overshadowed a small family hut that Naess liked to retreat to in order to write his works. It was originally a deeply personal affair, the growing awareness within Naess that scientific evidence, even in ecological science, could not provide the information for how we as humans should live. Naess had begun to slowly unravel his logical positivism, for when he looked within himself he found that his ethics were not based on these ideals. Rather it was his own subjective relationship with nature, including human, animal, plant and environment that informed his ethics and feelings of personal worth.

Naess went on to promote a philosophy that fundamentally attacks the dominant Western worldview, the idea that man is at the centre of creation. Even more than this he rejected the idea that we should have a human centric worldview just because of our natural human perspective. He created a philosophy that stressed inclusion, awareness, empathy and connectivity to all of nature.

It did not take him long to realise that he had reinvented the wheel! Although Naess had little contact with Eastern religion and philosophy the seeds were in place. His philosophy of personal resistance was inspired by Ghandi and hence he had contact with the principles of Ahimsa (non violence) and was inspired by close Buddhist friends. The unique contribution of Naess was to introduce these ideas and concepts to the rigorous western philosophical community in appropriate form. For which he was met with rejection and ridicule.

Naess was a philosopher of considerable reputation. He literally wrote the textbook on Communication and Argument in German. The man was the only professional philosopher working in Norway for nearly 20 years! He wrote over 30 books and single handled powered Norway’s philosophy teaching and research. The question arising is how could theories put together by such an eminent philosopher attract so much scorn and disbelief?

To answer we must look at his transition. By the time his deep ecology had been published, his views had evolved to become so different to the aggressive domineering attitude of analytic philosophers that he did not even fight them.

His philosophy was attacked by Social Ecologist Murrary Bookchin, calling his philosophy ‘eco la la’, claiming the attitude came from mostly male, white, academics, its concerns were new age occultism (and paganism) whilst also being a quasi-fascist Aryan movement. If Bookchin had actually read Naess’s early work Communication and Argument he would have found that these declarations alone would have broken 3 of Naess six rules on logical debate (Avoid tendentious; ambiguity, statements of fact and tone of presentation). Naess was more than capable of pulling this belligerent American apart, but never wrote a response.

At the same time environmental activitsts got the wrong end of the stick (as normal) when Earth First used Naess philosophy (one of peace, harmony and non violence) to justify violent action, green Luddism and campaigns to support forced sterilisation and food aid reduction in Africa.

Naess was horrified by these claims and worked hard to demonstrate the ethics of his position did not endorse such behaviour. Naess went on to do huge amounts of social work, public talking and environmental activism. Yet he never gave detailed analytical responses to his critics. Deep ecology or ecosophy T as Naess knew it was not a logical position to be analysed in detail, but a metaphilosophy to guide one’s actions and thoughts, to improve one’s life and live it more fully, indeed more completely part of nature.

Næss was appreciated, even in old age, for his exuberant, frolicsome manner. He lived and breathed his own work, taking on personal values and incorporating them into an emergent worldview. He loved to climb mountains and even published work on the ethics of mountain climbing!

He believed awareness of deep ecology was present in us all; as such he had no real blueprint for his followers. He set each one out to discover a personal worldview; in essence Ecosophy T was Ecosophy X. In each person was the capability to find their own relationship with the world through expanded awareness. He lamented the attenuation of such awareness later life through loss of contact with animals, plants and significant places.

I feel that his challenges have gone unanswered; his statements about global change and degradation incisive, his personal approach to a life philosophy free from religious overtones was visionary and that his critics have much to answer for! I will be writing a few further articles examining parts of his work in detail.

(and in his true form!)

I am also stealing this concluding quote straight from Jim Cocola on the website N+1 because I think it sums up so much about Naess’s work in a single sentence:

‘Ecosophy T...mixture one part Buddhism and one part Hinduism, one part Gandhi and one part Spinoza, one part Carnap and one part Heidegger, that strange brew finally has its roots in friluftsliv, the outdoor way of life that Norwegians revere.’

Naess is no longer with us, but his tradition is as old as humanity itself. Since the first Vedic holy man looked upon the sun and bowed, trying to place his mind outside of himself and connect to his environment, we have looked to integrate our lives with our surroundings, and a few grumpy old philosophy professors won’t stop us!

Thursday, 17 February 2011

10 awesome animals you may not know much about (Part 2)

Without any further delay, here are more amazing creatures that have captured my imagination in some way. No elephants and polar bears here, these are the indie animals too cool for documentaries!

4) The Crab Daddy: The Giant Coconut Crab

(It came from out of space...to rifle through your garbage!)

The largest land arthropod around in this day and age, the coconut crab is aptly named for its ability to crack open coconuts with its claws. Size isn’t everything, but in the coconut crabs case it certainly helps. These guys are known locally as the robber crab or palm thief, owing to their habit of stealing food from literally anybody and anything. They will pinch meals from tourist’s plates, break into your larder and nick not only your juiciest mango but also your pots and pans, manhandle your dog and pilfer its tasty chow and they aren’t above stealing food from each other.

Indeed these crafty crabs may well be responsible for the final disappearance of Amelia Earhart, as it turns out some remains of a white female complete with navigation equipment were found on Fiji after her disappearance. When British scientists showed up to confirm this, nearly all the bones and trinkets were gone as the locals said coconut crabs had pinched them!

Coconut crabs are hermit crabs by trade and after crawling out from the sea they get straight on with their lifelong role of stealing things and find an appropriately sized shell. Only the juveniles steal shells, and after some food and plenty of growth, they put aside this pastime and grow their own more than ample carapace.
Whilst, strong and tough the coconut crab has one major weakness, its love hate relationship with water. Its larvae are released by females into the sea and grow there, but when they come ashore as juveniles they loose their ability to breathe water. As such one of the major means of coconut crab death is by drowning!

If ever attacked by one of these big boys then there is one secret technique supposed to get them to let go (which they just won’t do otherwise). Apparently they go in for a little bit of light titillation on their softer undersides with some kind of soft material. Once you have performed this service they are more than happy to let you go and scuttle off.

3) You shall be known as Hellbender saviour of the frog men! The giant salamander

(Not as huggable as this makes it seem)

Just the common name of this American giant salamander is enough to make the list, the hellbender! Apparently the rather paranoid and easily frightened settlers in the new world (obviously nothing like that today) thought that its skin reminded them of ‘horrible tortures of the infernal regions'. I think they just look cool!

The hellbender, whilst impressive in name, is dwarfed by the Japanese and Chinese giant salamander. These are some of the largest amphibians around getting up to 1.8 meters and living up to 75 years.

The family branch is known as the corpulent salamanders, a reference to their flabby appearance. The extra folding and wrinkling aids in performing kickass belly flops, but is mainly to provide extra surface area for oxygen absorption.

The giant salamanders also have a giant sized secret. They are immune to the ravages of the Chytrid fungus. This nasty piece of work is partly responsible for the global collapse in amphibian populations, it causes thickening of the skin (literally growing keratin, the stuff that nails are made of) until the amphibian dies. It is literally killing of millions of amphibians yearly and has wiped out whole species.
The big salamanders seem to harbour a novel type of bacteria that is a chytrid repellent. Us science types have gotten hold of this stuff and may be able to grow similar anti fungal bacteria to save our endangered frogs, all thanks to the giant salamander. They shall be known as heroes among frog kind!

(also available in Orange)

2) Grace, elegance and amazing mileage: the Swift

(Style speaks for itself really)

Those of you that know me are most likely aware of the fact I’m not a big fan of birds. This stems from three reasons, birdy people have a huge monopoly on nerdy bird knowledge that makes getting into the game late an almost unassailable challenge, birds are one of the top predators of many of my fishy and insect friends, and generally they just don’t push my biology buttons (I’m sorry bird fans!). There are however a few particularly awesome birds that can blast through my innate bias and the swifts are just such a group of critters.

The swifts are a family of super aerial birds; many spend virtually no time at all on the ground and will not voluntarily settle on the earth, they are birds to the max. Their group name Apodidae actually comes from the Greek ‘without feet’ owing to the belief that they simply didn’t have any legs.

When it comes to flying these guys are the masters, cruising speed 14 meters per second (that’s 31 mph) with a max speed of 60 meters per second (a pretty nice 134 mph). Manoeuvrability is also critical for critter that needs to catch insets on the wing; swifts are capable of break neck turns and dives and can be spotted by the characteristic flicking action of their flight.

But it’s not just speed that the swifts can break out; they also win out on miles per gallon too. Per year they cover at least 200,000km with certain swifts covering nearly double this distance annually.

So we have speed, agility and mileage, but what about the cool extras? Swifts deliver here too; the adorably named swiftlet has developed a form of echolocation that makes bats jealous. Nearly all species can sleep whilst flying and some can even enter torpor, a hibernation like state, whilst still on the wing!
On top of that they have pretty cool sex lives too. The main call of the common swift is a scream, high for females and a little lower for males. They gather together to have screaming parties (again the actual technical term) in summer evenings, where a dozen or so birds fly in circles screaming at each other. After the sexy party, comes the actual sex, which is again performed whilst flying...doing it in style!

(Doing the aerial nasty)

1) Small, sneaky, super cute and ludicrously deadly; the blue ringed octopus

Another miniature champ (12-20cm), the blue ringed octopus adopts its brilliant yellow with blue ringed colour pattern when startled or angry. When really wound up, the blue rings actually pulsate and dark brown patches appear. These tiny cephalopods look brilliant but it is a deadly warning. The blue ringed octopus carries one of the world’s most deadly poisons, the deadly tetrodotoxin.
Now they usually hunt crabs and small fish, but the blue ringed ones are without fear. They will defend themselves and their territory against vastly larger aggressors, including humans. The tetrodotoxin causes muscular paralysis and it is strong enough to kill humans.

Now heed my advice! If you every have the misfortune of being bitten by one of these little blue bundles of toxin (or indeed eat badly prepared pufferfish at a Japanese restaurant as the toxin is the same) , you will begin to feel numbness, cramps and pain virtually straight away. Make sure someone knows what got you, for in a few minutes you will be conscious but completely paralysed. Not just your external muscles, but your respiratory and cardiac muscles will be paralysed. In short you won’t be able to breathe and your heart will stop. There is no anti toxin for blue ringed octopus venom.

Now fear not! If someone performs CPR on you, you stand a good chance of making it through, chest compression and ventilation if done correctly will treat your only lethal symptoms. If you make it to hospital and get artificial respiration you stand a very good chance of making it through!

The horrific part is that many people who are poisoned are given up on by those that are trying to resuscitate them (as is normal CPR practice for cardiac arrest). They then rapidly die in front of their saviours whilst still fully conscious, knowing that what was being done before could save their lives...scary! Just one of these pretty little things has enough venom for 26 adult humans, still it won’t stop me going diving in Australia.

Monday, 14 February 2011

10 awesome animals you may not know much about (Part 1)

As someone who is environmentally concerned I am on occasion overwhelmed with the unrelenting awesomeness of nature! When this feeling builds up to an unstoppable level I feel compelled rant furiously about animals that I think are just wonderful, bizarre or downright awesome. So in no particular order are the first six of my top 10 animals that I think are ludicrously cool:

10) The Mighty Aurochs!

(Behold super cow...slayer of wolves)

Imagine a cow, but a few million times more awesome. Standing over 2 meters at the shoulder and weighing 1,000 kilograms, these mighty beasts originated in the over 2 million years ago in India and used to roam across the entire of Asia and Europe. Aurochs were tough, aggressive and had a stylish colour scheme (females preferring the elegant red and while males cool black with a white stripe). It was unfortunately us that destroyed the Aurochs, they were hunted for due to their territoriality and aggression and bred to produce the more manageable and puny cows we see today.

Even Julius Caesar was a fan: ‘...those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.’

The last wild herd lived in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, where they were protected as best they could. Eventually it was disease from wild cattle that killed off the last few. The last recorded live aurochs, a female from an original herd of 38, died only in 1627.

9) The invicible Tardigrades

(Cute...but tough)

Also known as the rather cute sounding water bears (or even moss piglets) these microscopic water dwelling segmented guys possess eight legs and are tougher than superman and the incredible hulk combined (not doing so much in the strength department though).

Called polyextremophiles by us science types these little guys can survive; temperatures close to absolute zero (that’s −273 °C, getting to the point where molecular motion ceases), a decade without a drink, 1000 times the radiation of most other animals (even more than the much talked about cockroach), being boiled in acid, 1200 times earth gravity (putting most dragon ball z characters to shame) and most surprisingly over a week in the unrelenting vacuum of space.

Basically when the world ends as we know it, these guys will be around and slowly bear crawling across the boiling, high pressure acid lakes of earth. Indeed as they seem to put up with being in outer space so well, they could be the first terrestrial species to successfully colonise other planets. They might be on mars right now plotting the fall of man!

8) The ingenious ant

(Slave maker ants, doing what they do best)

Everyone knows of ants, they annoy us at picnics, manage to invade kitchens on a routine basis and seem to live everywhere. What people don’t generally know is that ants are one of the most successful types of animals in the world.
There are 10,000 species of ants, and over one quadrillion ants alive in the world today (yes its a real number...1,000,000,000,000,000 and that’s nearly half a million per person).

Ants can lift 20 times their own bodyweight, can smell as well as a dog and live in giant social colonies. Yet these are just the generic ant abilities, ants produce a myriad array of specialist to do particular jobs.

Ants created warfare long before us. Army ants march all day in giant swarms, carrying all their supplies with them and consuming all in their path (including small mammals and birds), they even make camp every nightfall. Ants have huge battles between colonies, some spray formic acid, others develop warrior castes that have oversize mandibles, and the big head ant even has a specialist ant warrior with an unsurprisingly massive head that is used to seal off breaches in the colony defences. Some species of ants even use species of caterpillars as biological weapons, they hold them up like a bazooka, lightly stroke until primed and then release toxic chemicals onto invaders. The bullet ant has a sting so powerful it can cause the following symptoms in a human “waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours”...nice to know!

Ants also created slavery. There is a whole genus of ants that are slave makers, they go off into other ants hives, snatch babies and then raise them as slaves in their own colony. Some species have become so dependent on slaves that they are unable to feed themselves and rely on slaves for all essential tasks.
Not that ants just do bad things! They also created farming, pesticides and fertiliser. Many ants farm aphids for honeydew, they either protect the aphids or capture them and relocate them to a defendable spot within the colony. The aphids graze on plant sap and the excess sugars come out their rear ends. Ants then consume the delicious aphid poo. The Lemon ant sprays a version of formic acid that works as a pesticide; it controls plant growth in the area it lives to enable it to find nest sites and to encourage growth of the plants that it feeds on. Leaf cutter ants don’t eat the leaves they cut; they pile them up as compost. Fungi then grow in the leaf cutter ants leaf pile, its these tasty mushroom treats that the ants then consume.
Ants are cool, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of their awesomeness!

7) The majestic oarfish

(Here be monsters...)

Oarfish are what lie beyond the edge of the map, growing up to 17 meters in length these scaly devils were once confused for sea serpents. Oarfish have silvery ribbon like bodies, sport the classic red dorsal fin complete with crest and sometimes reported as being able to give off electric shocks.

Virtually nothing is known about these mysterious desins of the deep, they have been filmed alive only twice. Nearly all of our information comes from fish in surface waters or washed up on beaches, coming from the depths to die. They are occasionally caught as a game fish, but are thrown back because they have gelatinous and slimy flesh that even Cthulhu would be proud of.

They basically look and act like proper sea monsters, loads of awesomeness points!

6) The chatty Beluga Whale

(If you dont love him you are dead inside)

The perfectly white sea canary, is a whale that can smile...yes a smiling whale. Belugas grow up to 5.5m in length, have long flexible necks (hard to tell in whale though!) and faces that allow them to have distinct facial expressions (all the better for mocking Ahab with!). They are highly social animals, spending long periods of time communicating and frolicking together. They have a very high pitch collection of calls and can be heard quite clearly, they also like to play by spitting water at each other and will continue this interaction with humans. They have a large bulbous facial melon (that is the technical term) that they can also manipulate to later the dimensions of their head. They possess the rare ability to swim backwards, something most whales just haven’t got to grips with.

Belugas are just cool guys and girls, they have been known to save human divers and one has even managed to learn a simplified language from a Japanese researcher, opening up the doorway to man cetacean relations. The sad fact is they are under threat, they are listed as near threatened globally, but several sub populations are critically endangered. They have been overfished in the past, the downside of Japanese/whale interaction, but are better protected now. Campaigns to restrict the existing quota of Belugas are being pushed by the US’s National Marine Fisheries service.

5) The real king of the jungle the Jaguar

(Our middleweight and puond for pound champ)

People say lions are the king of the jungle; it’s a lie, lions live in the Savannah. They spend all day lazing around; the real undisputed jungle king is the South American Jaguar. So, the Jaguar is the third largest big cat, many would say vastly outranked by lion and tiger alike. But they would be wrong!

Everyone knows it is wildly unfair to put two fighters of different sizes up against each other, which is why they have weight classes in boxing. So, we have to look at the data pound for pound, and it turns out the jaguar has one killer advantage, the strongest bite of all the big cats. The Jaguars bite with a force of over 8,900 Newtons (that would be the measure of force, not the actual guy with the apple). This is twice strength of the puny lion and second strongest of all mammals (spotted Hyena wins out I’m afraid). This is because the jaguar is too awesome to go for the jugular like most big cats, when it hunts its prey the Jaguar turns it up a notch and goes for the cranial smash. That’s right; nearly all jaguar kills end with the prey animal having its brain smushed.

A jaguar is a real slugger, not just a pretty boy that lays around soaking up tourist attention! The jaguar can drag a 360kg bull 8m up a tree and then grind even the strongest bones to dust in its jaw. Step over lion, the real king is here! (Also bonus points for coming in a variety of colours, from the classic spots, to the sleek and elegant melanised black panther)

(Who is saying I'm not cooler than a lion...)

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Quick thought on martial arts

I don't want to use this blog to rant about martial arts (those of you that know me are aware of the fact this happens nearly all the time anyway!) but I feel I can get away with one short mini rant....

'Only a warrior chooses pacifism, everyone else is condemned to it'

This phrase appears in the Japanese samurai classic the Hagukure. I see here an element of truth, as someone who has practised martial arts. These arts most often seem to free you from the need to seek violence. So many young men I see and meet are desperate to fight something, they want to fight each other, want to fight for girls, want to fight for freedom, want to fight to prove themselves and want to fight for what they believe in (whatever that may be). They are looking for a reason to fight, because they do not feel happy in themselves. Some people blame others, it is the state, the man, the big corporations, the fact is they are angry and want to fight, but they cant. They don't have any power, personal or otherwise, they cant fight the guy that obnoxiously hits on your best female friend in the pub, they cant fight the corporate executive who buys up heathlands and turns them into golf courses and they can't fight the overarching cultural shift that has left millions poor, sick and starving. All of this leaves a sour taste in the mouth, a feeling of individual worthlessness in a very large world.

I am not saying that there is one solution to this, indeed I think there are many. I only have experience from a martial arts perspective. I feel that several paths are open to a person to enable them to feel self worth, a personal power that gives them the ability to make their life meaningful.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Shifting baselines

Rather than some funky kind of house music this actually refers to the concept coined by Daniel Pauley in the journal TREE. In 1995 (a while ago now) he wrote about the already well known catastrophic collapse of the worlds fisheries, the ludicrous amount of discarded catch and the heavily subsidized inflated fishing industry. Furthermore, he also identified a new phenomenon, the idea that our standard of what is a good healthy ocean, the knowledge of what species make up the ecosystem itself is in fact changing over time.

He insisted on a historical review of fishing, so that we could look back through old records to get a true examination of the state of our seas. This was to determine if old wives tales about seas so filled with cod you could walk on them were fact or fiction. For a long time we simply didn't know this history. If you go and ask old fishermen what the seas were like when they were young, they generally believe that fish caught today are smaller and less numerous than back in the day. This is just a single generation, how far have the baselines shifted? What can we learn from the tall tales of old fishermen?

It saddens me that we do not have much faith in stories these days, indeed there are not that many people telling stories and not that many people willing to listen. If you go out and find hunter gather communities in Africa or South America they generally have at least one thing in common; old people are respected and they tell a lot of stories.

Stories of creation, songs of history and tales of how, why and where things are. These stories are altered a little year on year, but as a rule reflect pretty well on the types of activities the group needs to survive. Methods of hunting and fishing, places to do these activities and what you expect to catch are all passed down reasonably faithfully from generation to generation.

We have failed to listen to our old fishing stories, we don't know where to hunt, what method to use or what to expect in terms of catch. Each year naïve young fishermen, scientists (self included) and politicians struggle to work out what they have in their seas and what new methods they need to ensure a good catch.

One of my favourite lines from the film avatar is a fairly obvious one, 'Let me see if you can wake up from your insanity.' It is not a new idea, but I feel a pertinent one. I feel that one of the most terrifying ways for you to become disconnected from reality would be to continually forget all you know about the world every single day.

We as a culture are suffering from massive collective amnesia. Every generation we wake up screaming, angry and alone because we are terrible at telling stories. Now Memento like we must scrabble through old notes and records to find the past states of our oceans and forests. No one considered it important enough to tell these tales and we have suffered as a result.

As it turns out a good deal of the tales from the deep were accurate. I cannot praise the work of the late Ranosm Myres enough, he collected historical fishing records across the USA and also the world for hundreds of years, for hundreds of species. His findings showed that even in 100 years the baselines have shifted a great deal. Based on his analysis we have seen 90% or more declines in top ocean predators. Total overall catches per unit effort are less than a 10th of what they were 100 years ago. I wanted to avoid including too many scientific graphs but this taken form Myers et al (2003) in Nature is just too shocking not to include.

It shows nothing short of global, catastrophic and universal cultural amnesia. Every ocean in the world used to perform several orders of magnitude better than they do now. We knew this in 2003 and the struggle still continues. I would like to praise the work of Randy Olson and his team for their (much more profession and detailed) blog Shifting Baselines. Their site deals with this phenomenon in a much more complete and engaging fashion.