Feel the Wild

rei

I will be giving talks at REI stores and at the Commonwealth Club in December and January. See the dates and locations below. Looking forward to seeing you all.

REI

 

Lessons from Photographing the Wilderness

What is it like to be sitting on the grass 10 feet away from a one-ton bison as it slowly passes by you, staring at you. To have a brown bear challenging you 15 feet away. How to embrace the chaotic world of nature and find the magic nature has to offer. How to find inspiration even in the worst of times. Doing photography in the wilderness is more than simply observing a wild world through the lens, but it is chance to connect with the world around, to capture that connection that unites us to all species roaming this planet. This presentation is about becoming a better photographer by learning from nature. It is also about using technology in a constructive way and not getting overwhelmed by it.

REI San Francisco, December 3rd

REI San Jose, December 9th

REI Berkeley, December 10th

REI Corte Madera, January 14th

 

The Commonwealth Club

 

The Power of Nature to Restore the Human Spirit

Storyteller, explorer and photographer Daniel Fox brings you along on his journey into the wild. From grizzly bears in Alaska to crocodile-like caimans in Argentina, the images of his journeys bring the contours of the wilderness into stark relief and make clear the inherent connection between humans and the natural world. Join us as his stories of the depths of wildlife provide an opportunity for all of us to come feel the power of nature through the eyes of Daniel Fox!

San Francisco, January 22th

Knowledge, our Achilles’ heel

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“In your thirst for knowledge, be sure not to drown in all the information”. Anthony J. D’Angelo, founder of Collegiate Empowerment

It is hard today to hear a conversation that doesn’t involve the belief that our technology will be the key to solve our problems. We truly trust that our salvation lies in our ability to invent and create. We think that the issues we see do not reflect a problem that lies at the core of our values, but rather simply needs an adjustment in its application. At pretty much any conservation summit (The World Ocean in Singapore, BLUE in Monterey, etc) the message is always the same – the problem is only a question of bad management. If we could only find out the missing pieces of the puzzle, if we could only know more about the planet, nature, and its resources, then, only then, would we be able to act accordingly and “save” what is left. Our understanding is that the destruction of the planet and the abuses we have been responsible for, have occurred only because we lacked the know-how. So now we look at the present and the future and conclude that we must know more if we want to change. This, to my opinion is the root of the problem.

We consider ourselves to be the most intelligent species ever to populate the planet. We look at the past and compare ourselves to what was before. The fact is that all previous cultures once thought of themselves as omnipotent, powerful and of being capable of ruling the world. Each empire thought of itself as better than the one before. And each fell to its demise. We continue to understand our role as “stewards” of this planet. We think it is our duty to protect it. We continually see ourselves at the top of the pyramid looking down over our dominion. We don’t believe we are part of nature, but rather that we stand above it, separated from it, since we are better than it. We think of nature as this disconnected thing that exists outside of ourselves.

Our obsession for knowledge has turned us arrogant and immature. We are addicted to our brain and its capacities. We get high on what we can do. Our society lives in a constant sugar rush, drinking the technology & knowledge “Kool Aid” without any filter. We have kicked wisdom out of our lives, deeming it boring and against progress. But it is not because the chocolate cake is on the table that we have to eat it. We don’t think about the long-term consequences. We don’t think about the social impact of our discoveries. We only focus on the short-term gains. We only look for quick personal individual gratification. Frankenstein’s tale was precisely about that. When Mary Shelley wrote the horror story of the scientist and a monster, she did more than creating a new genre. Her novel was a premonition to what is in store for our world.

From within our cities, sitting behind computers or staring down at our “smart” phones, we claim our superiority and gaze at the world around us in a conceited way. Detached from any realities, we think of aging as a disease, that good parenting means monitoring our children every single second, that consuming green will fix our consumerism, that the idea of implanting a device in our brain to fix an imbalance is pure genius, that people who gamble our savings have a right to do so, that Facebook is real, that the web brings us closer, that food is only a recipe of carbs, proteins, sugars, and fats, and that nature is only a resource that demands to be quantified and managed. What Richard Louv wrote in his book “The Last Child in the Woods” can’t be measured so it is hardly considered. So we go the opposite way and go crazy with our quantification. We have to put a value on Planet Earth (5,000 trillion dollars according to astrophysicist Greg Laughlin) and on the oceans (check the Ocean Health Index for an orgy of numbers) to understand their importance. If it doesn’t have a number, we can’t understand it, or more, we don’ know how to value it. Knowledge is indeed important but it should not be the horse we ride on.

We have lost the ability to see the big picture. Because we are so good a looking at everything on an anatomical level we have become blind at grasping the bigger perspective. William R Catton does an amazing job at explaining why in his books Overshoot and Bottleneck. I strongly recommend you read the two.

Knowledge is not the reason why people change. If it was so, no one would smoke cigarettes, everybody would pay their credit cards on time, no one would break the law, everybody would follow the rules, there would be no economic crash and every politician would always make decisions for the good of society. The reality is that our life structure is based on values. And values differ. If we want to change, we will have to understand how people come to truly value things, and unfortunately, it is not through knowledge. No one that cherishes nature do so because of numbers, they all got to care and love nature by spending time in it. And here is the core of the argument.

For people to change, for children to develop the love and care for nature, we will have to literally reconnect our society with life and the planet. First, there needs to be direct correlation between our lifestyle and the state of the environment. We can talk about garbage littering our beaches and polluting our oceans as much as we want to and for many years, the fact remains that each and one of us is totally disconnected with the amount of garbage he or she produces and its impact. Everyone takes their garbage to the curb and says goodbye – out of sight, out of mind. There are absolutely no incentives whatsoever for people to produce less garbage and to understand the consequences of their consuming habits. Something they can’t physically feel is simply impossible to understand and care about. How can we make society care about the state of fishing stocks when subsidies create an illusion that masquerades the tragedy? How can they grasp the seriousness of the situation when the price of fish at the market has barely risen over the years. Even if they hear about the problems, the reality doesn’t touch them. Our world lives in a bubble detached from any consequences. We are sheltered from the impact our lifestyle creates. For our society to change, we will foremost have to accept the blame and consequences of our actions. We will have to be open to the idea that the fundamentals of our society are no longer valid with the current state of the planet. Until that day comes, all we will be doing is keep drowning in our own arrogance.

Daniel J. Boorstin, in his book “The Discoverers” said: ”The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” I think, today, it would be more accurate to say that “The greatest obstacle to living sustainably and in harmony with our environment is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge”.

Deflecting – Preservation and Exploitation

“As long as there are commercial opportunities in the Arctic, local communities, governments, and companies will take advantage of them.” Andreas Østhagen, Research Associate – Norway/EU Arctic Policy

In the conservation world, there are two main ideologies on how to achieve your goal. The first one consist of applying a direct counter force towards an element you wish to stop. The other approach is greatly different. Accepting that the element has too much momentum and its force is too great, it chooses to rather deflect or guide the force towards a different end point. In other words, either you protest against corporations, or you work with them. Although this bureau accepts that there might be some benefits in trying to change the system by protesting, it believes that the forces at play within our society, within our industrialized world are way to big to simply counter attack. Rather, it considers cooperation to be the way to achieve long lasting conservation. The goal is to create win-win situations and, as Østhagen concluded in his article for the Arctic Institute, to establish a balance between preservation and exploitation. One unorthodox way to explain this “cooperation” or “deflecting” concept, is to look at martial art aikido. Aikido is often translated as “the way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the way of harmonious spirit.” It is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. This requires very little physical strength.

Some argue that this method is a sell out. But we think otherwise and campaign for it.

One of the most famous conservationists who believed in this strategy was José Márcio Ayres. He believed that nature would stand no chance of survival unless community-based models of natural resource management were applied. In fact he created the Economic Alternatives Program with an aim to change the way in which natural resources are being exploited, to make them generate long-term socioeconomic and environmental benefits.

Per instance, the clearing of forest for lumber, once carried out illegally and on a large scale by forestry companies from outside Mamirauá, is now handled by 20 communities living in the reserve who take into account the sustainability of the tree species — a first for the várzea. This kind of sustainable development has made it possible to increase the income from forest management by 100 to 150 per cent — a huge benefit for the community, as it is the only major work that can be done during the high-water season.

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance is also recommending solutions based on this belief. Its proposal does want a ban on fishing in the wider Ross Sea region, nor a limit on toothfish catches. But rather it proposes excluding fishing from the most ecologically important areas.

This is the strategy we want to see for the Arctic. Here are two solutions we believe could yield tremendous conservation benefits, using the momentum of exploitation to the conservation advantage.

  1. Give Give
    For every exploitation zone given, an area of the same size is declared off limit and protected. The more exploitation, the more protection. Conservationists and biologists would determine what areas are best to protect in relation to the exploitation zones.
  2. Insurance Fund
    Unfortunately, accidents do happen. Even when we don’t want to. That is why we buy insurance. Nobody buys a car knowing that he/she will get into an accident. But we all get an insurance in case one day… According to Wikipedia, insurance is: “a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss. Insurance is defined as the equitable transfer of the risk of a loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for payment.” In 1989, there was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 2010, there was the BP oil spill. Every year, in Russia, 5 million tons of oil is spilled into the environment (6x what the BP spill was). It is only fair to say, that one day, there will be another major disaster. The question is not How, but When. We propose then that all oil/gas/mining companies involved in the exploitation of the Arctic region finance an insurance fund that will go for an eventual environmental tragedy. Part of that fund would be used to manage the protected areas mentioned in point 1 above. The more resources are extracted, the more the fund grows. This concept is also used between Tourism and Conservation. The more tourists you have the more you have to finance the conservation.

Those solutions are not problems free. They do though acknowledge the complexity of our society and work with the parties involved into a constructive relationship rather than a pissing contest, (Shell wins injunction against Greenpeace Arctic drilling protestors) where short term benefits might indeed be achieved, at the price of much needed long term benefits.

The Need for a New Story

Last week in London, I had the privilege of meeting the theologian Martin Palmer. It was one of those encounters when after two hours, we obliged ourselves to continue another time, most likely over dinner, because this discussion could go on for many hours more.

Both of us strongly believe that there is something crucial missing in the conservation movement, that science and technology have taken the center stage, and that what is needed has been demoted to being insignificant. In a previous post, Conservation 2.0, I wrote how we must stop focusing on statistics and need to bring back a certain sense of mysticism and base our desire to change on values, and not just scientific reports. Yes science is good, as a tool, but not as the root of our actions.

Alongside this issue, I was glad to read two recent articles in the the New York Book Review, Age of Ignorance, by Charles Simic and Do We Need Stories, by Tim Parks.

Simic and Parks point out how our society (in this particular case, the U.S.A.) has glamorized ignorance, and embraced a shallow form of storytelling: “there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business”. Our society is filled with junk information. We live in an era of condensed opinionated “blips” of information, in which opinions are valued more than in-depth knowledge. Whomever shouts loudest is the one who will be seen as the expert. Facebook and Twitter are perfect tools for this type of narrative. News is reported in 140 characters or less, based on ever shorter attention spans. It is certainly not a lack of stories that is at the root of the problem, but a lack in the quality.

“Like” buttons will get you “involved” and grant you the title of being a “supporter” of pretty much anything. A cute image of a cuddly seal pup or any other baby animal will do wonders to attracted your attention. No need to know about the underlying studies, no desire to even question the statements made: a look into those big round eyes, suffices to form an opinion! We are gullible to anything that makes us go: “Ooooooh, how cute!” or “Arrrrgh, how gross!” Just look at what is popular on YouTube these days. “In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him.” says Simic

In his article Parks makes an observation that touches some of the issues regarding our perception of Nature.

“There are words that describe objects we make: to know the word “chair” is to understand about moving from standing to sitting and appreciate the match of the human body with certain shapes and materials. But there are also words that come complete with entire narratives, or rather that can’t come without them. The only way we can understand words like God, angel, devil, ghost, is through stories, since these entities do not allow themselves to be known in other ways, or not to the likes of me. Here not only is the word invented—all words are—but the referent is invented too, and a story to suit.”

Through our views based on science and technology, we have come to believe that nature is no different than a chair. We have stripped it of its sacredness and reduced it to a series of logical facts, from which we ultimately deduced – and finally claimed – our superiority. We have taken possession of the natural world by baptizing it with our taxonomy and putting it under our dominion. The next step was to personify nature, giving it a “Self”. Thus we have come to not only perceive ourselves superior to nature, but now we are making nature like us. This is really the world upside down.

Sadly much of the conservation and environmental community has been following this trend incessantly, dumbing down the storyline. No one wants to talk about values and mysticism, rather, they prefer to use climate-change scares or the plight of poor struggling creatures. The Anthropocene age has not only transformed the planet but also the stories with which we define our relationship with it. It would have been too good to be true if all our knowledge would have made us more humble, rather than haughty and if it had actually brought back the need for something sacred, instead of turning us into “Tweeting Gods”.

The Destructive Nature of Subsidies and Tax Breaks

Subsidies are prima facie evidence that consumers would not buy the product at its market price. They distort markets, compromising economic growth, breed corruption and undermine social welfare by foisting inferior or over-priced goods onto the market” Kenneth P. Green

Cities and markets have historically been created under pragmatic realities. Towns, villages, or any other settlement existed in logical places: by a river, by the sea or close to a trading road. Farming was possible where the soil was rich. Fishing was productive and worth it only if the gains outweigh the costs. The logic was quite simple and fair – either you can or you can’t.   If you could on some times, and not on others, than most likely you would adopt a nomadic lifestyle, looking for certain benefits in certain places on certain times. In this system, the value on goods was equal to the realities of producing it or getting it. It was, at the core of it, the real definition of a free market economy, where supply and demand drive the development and expansion of societies. If a resource was to be mismanaged, abused, and consequently lost, then logically the market and the people would react accordingly. Lessons would be learned and laws would be put in place trying to avoid the same mistakes to be repeated. Then the modern world invented subsidies and tax breaks.

Different from credit – an extension to fulfill an obligation, subsidies and tax breaks are inflationary tools that create a false reality. They support unrealistically what should not exist. Interestingly enough, the etymology of subsidy comes from sub “under, behind” and sedere “to sit”. One could easily concluded that the word was invented to illustrate something that remains still and unproductive. The headline: “EU Subsidies – Millions for Doing Nothing” does more than simply playing on the words. It highlights one of the most dangerous economical inventions our societies have now so well become depended on.

On the conservation and management of natural resources, subsidies and tax breaks are the most destructive force  ever existed. They take away any sense of responsibility and desire to manage with a long term approach. They entice people to be rewarded for being inefficient and corrupted. Giant corporations, with legal and financial power to lobby politicians, themselves in charge of allocating subsidies and giving tax breaks, usually end up siphoning most of the money while the small producers end up being short handed (click here for more information). Our history is filled with examples of how these practices only prolong the inevitable and unfortunately stagnant innovation.

How long would the whaling era have gone on without the subsidies?

Would whaling still go on today in Japan and Iceland? (see more info here)

Would our economy be so oil dependent if we paid the real price for oil?

What would happen if the oil companies did not benefit from any tax breaks?

Would our consumerism be so high if not subsidized?

Would corn and soy be everywhere if their subsidies were taken away?

What would happen if the richest countries did not spend $106 billion per year subsidizing their own farmers?

Would the ocean’s fish stocks be depleted if no subsidies existed? (see more info here)

Does it make sense to fill groceries stores in polar regions with ice cream manufactured thousands of kilometers away? (see video here) The insane thing is not the price they pay but the fact that we have created and supported an economy that is illogic, nonsensical and ludicrous.

Does it make sense for countries to still subsidize families for having children? Isn’t 7 billion enough?

Would our lives really be miserable without these fiscal illusions?

Would the Arctic and polar regions development made sense if governments didn’t help?

Is it viable to sustain a lifestyle that without these supports, would crumble into pieces?

Some say that if the subsidies are taken away, it will hurt major industries and people will loose their jobs. Maybe it is, but everybody will adapt and manage. It is better to deal with reality than fiction. Right now, fiction is king. Financially the world is broken down. The planet’s resources are seeing the end of the line. Our population is unstoppable, and still we look at ways to continue its trajectory.

It is as if a person had spent his salary even before receiving it, eaten away his yearly supply within the first month, and borrowing more than he could even repay in his lifetime, and tell him not to worry, just continue doing what you are doing, the government will back you up, no strings attached.

If we want to grow “sustainably”, the first and most important step will be to stop all subsidies and tax breaks. Obviously it is wishful thinking that will most likely never happen but we must at least look into it. The exercise is crucial to understand the conundrum at play. Energy subsidies, social subsidies, science subsidies, consumer subsidies, environmental subsidies, farming subsidies, and fishing subsidies are nothing more than old and inefficient ways to keep a status quo on declining and obsolete practices. They lure the population and governments into a fantasy world and false beliefs, making people cling on what has already past. Most importantly, they take away any sense of responsibility and accountability.

“Thanks to farm subsidies, the fine collaboration between agribusiness and Congress, soy, corn and cattle became king. And chicken soon joined them on the throne. It was during this period that the cycle of dietary and planetary destruction began, the thing we’re only realizing just now.”  Mark Bittman

Climate Change: Pointless Debate

Disclaimer: For the record, I am not financed by any  energy company, oil company, any other corporation, or even conservation organizations. I do believe in the global increase of temperatures and the catalyzing effect human’s society has had on this process.

In a recent article, Business: Blue and Green, the author Michael Sutton, Vice President at the Center for the Future of the Oceans, in Monterey, referred to a report published in 2009 by the Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions. In it, the writers of the “Pacific Ocean Synthesis” concluded that climate change was the ultimate threat to the ocean and coastal environments. The second biggest threat was pollution and the third, overfishing.

In October 2011, Yale Environment 360 posted on their site that Europeans believed climate change was an even greater threat than the current economic crisis, and second worldwide only to poverty.

Back in November 2010, online magazine Grist bore the headline “Climate change and consumerism are the biggest threats to future, U.N.  warns”

In 2004, UK Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King said climate change was the most severe problem faced by the world, even greater than terrorism.

Friends of the Earth, Europe, “the largest grassroots environmental network in Europe campaigning for sustainable solutions to benefit the planet, people and our common future”, goes as far as to demand climate justice! For this group and so many others, climate change is the biggest threat our planet is facing!

For others, it is the biggest threat our planet has ever faced! Bigger than the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 75 million people or 3% of the world population – the equivalent of 210 million today. Bigger than the Black Death, which between 1300s and 1720s killed more than 100 million people, roughly 25% of the world population back then – and equivalent to 2.25 billion people today. Bigger than smallpox, measles, malaria which, combined together have killed close to a billion people in the last century. Bigger than the first and second world war with casualties close to 100 million or the Lushan Rebellion that took away 15% of the world’s population back in 755.

Those are extremely serious statements!

What is climate change anyway? According to Wikipedia, it is “a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years. It may be a change in average weather conditions or the distribution of events around that average (e.g., more or fewer extreme weather events). Climate change may be limited to a specific region or may occur across the whole earth.” 

By following the logic, climate change has essentially been a threat since the beginning of time. First, temperatures went down, then up, down, and finally slightly up again. At one point, glaciers covered most of the Americas. At another the Sahara was green. The fact is that temperatures on earth have been nothing but stable. It has been a constant roller coster with certain periods more drastic than others. At that point, the following argument is presented: “All these were not created by humans, like now”. Yes, I agree, so what?

Imagine a room full of people. Imagine all these people smoking cigarettes. The air fills up with smoke and various chemicals. The floor becomes thick with cigarette butts, making barely possible to move. Physically, people turn yellow, and constantly cough. When one of them dies, his chest is opened to reveal black asphalt-like lungs.  Yet we keep smoking. Puff after puff, gradually and surely, the air in the room becomes hotter and hotter. Whether it is all this combustion, or the fact that the smoke can’t escape, no one really knows, but then, who really cares? People live, breath and eat cigarettes. They sell packs of them to each other. The more they smoke, the better. This is called “growth”. Their lives are literally consumed by cigarettes. Then, one day, someone takes his shirt off sighing how hot it is. Sure enough, the group of people, now crammed by their numbers and the amount of trash they find themselves in, start to argue about the meaning of such a phenomenon. What could cause this unpleasant feeling? Or is it a pleasant one? Who really knows. One celebrates this new reality, he is more of a tropical type. While the other complains, he was more comfortable before. People take sides. Everybody has an opinion. Yet, people still smoke, because that is what these people do. Should they try to reduce the temperature? Maybe, but, how? One of them proposes to make cigarettes that make less smoke. Another comes up with the idea of making a machine that filters the smoke. Because the smoke is the enemy right? Or is it the cigarette? Why not start recycling them. Maybe that will fix the problem. How about creating biodegradable ones? Should they stop smoking? Preposterous! What are they going to do if they can’t smoke? The problem is not their habit of smoking, but rather how they smoke. There must be a solution somewhere that will fix this problem and keep them happy and smoking.

Our society is addicted to consumerism and whether climate change is a direct consequence, is absolutely irrelevant. Even if the world stopped today, even if the global economic power shut down tomorrow (which will not happen), temperatures would most likely still go up for god knows how long.

Instead of attacking the source of the problem, our lifestyle, our values, our system and its obvious, concrete, and irrefutable consequences – pollution, ocean acidification, disappearance of fish stocks, total destruction of the environment – so obvious in fact that no one can argue about them, we have had to focus our attention and debate on something so conceptual and evolutionary insignificant as the rise in temperatures on a global scale. In our view, it is not our lifestyle that is the biggest threat to the planet but rather an environmental event! It is not our unstoppable consumption, but rather a problem of applying it. We are the smartest species ever existed, the pinnacle of evolution, the enlightened ones. Or the elected ones, chosen by God – whatever God you believe in. How could we be at fault? How could our idea of growth and society be so erroneous?

Climate change is an economy of believers and deniers, with people in between who simply don’t know what to do. What can they do anyway? Sign a petition to curb carbon emission? Everyone who is not personally involved in the debate (meaning everyone that does not make a living out of the climate change debate) is honestly overwhelmed by the topic. What does climate change mean to them? Why is it that they have to make an effort while the economy and the governments are not? They have to feed their families, make a living and survive – what does climate change have to do with them?

Not only climate change is empty of any meaning, but it is also moving the most pressing issues away. Do we really need to focus on the melting glaciers, which have been melting for centuries (yes, even if they are melting faster now) when our rivers are loaded with chemicals, when billions of pounds of trash are dumped in the ocean, or when global energy demand, which is based largely on fossil fuels, is expected to increase 35% by 2030? Do we really need the face of a polar bear cub having a hard time finding food to remind us that we are doing something wrong? Our problem is straightforward: growth and consumerism. Unfortunately, as the Guardian points out, no one is ready to slow down:

The global mining, oil and gas industries have expanded so fast in the last decade they are now leading to large-scale “landgrabbing” and are threatening farming and water supplies, according to a report by environment and development groups in Europe, Africa and India. The catalogue of devastation is growing. We are no longer talking about isolated pockets of destruction and pollution. In just 10 years, iron ore production has more than doubled, coal has risen 45% and metals like lithium by 125%. Across Africa, Latin America and Asia, more and more lands, rivers and aquifers are being devoured by mining activities. “Industrial wastelands are being formed by vast open-pit mines and mountain top removal, and the poisoning of water systems, deforestation, and the contamination of topsoil,”

Or as the Economist puts it:

Like China, (India) is ploughing resources into nuclear power, oil-and-gas exploration and imports, and renewable energy. Like China, too, however, India finds coal the obvious option. It is something it has plenty of – already the world’s third – largest producer, it has the world’s fifth-biggest coal reserves. But it cannot exploit them fast enough to meet demand. In fact, output has not increased for two years. Coal India, the state monopoly, blames the difficulty of securing mining permits. So India may soon become the world’s biggest coal importer. On current trends, as estimated by McKinsey, India’s carbon emissions will increase by about two-and-a-half times by 2030, by which time its power industry alone will account for about one-tenth of the total rise in global emissions. Like China’s government, India’s points out that, per head, its people will still be producing far less carbon dioxide than Americans or Australians (though China is rapidly catching up with some European countries in pollution per person). And, in India’s case, total emissions (at 5 billion–6.5 billion tonnes) will remain well below China’s.

Andrew Simms, in the Guardian, writes about the lessons we could learn from previous collapsed societies. Still he fears that we are repeating the same mistakes: “our own response, reaching for the crutches of technological fixes and intensification in both agriculture and energy, are ways to keep our existing lifestyles and patterns of consumption going, rather than seeking out social innovations and different ways to live”.

Independently of the climate, our lifestyle is simply unsustainable. We can argue about how hot it is, or drill to find out what it was like million of years ago, but it will change absolutely nothing. It’s all part of a Kool-Aid we love to drink and debate on. Self centered and pretentious, we argue about the consequences while staying away from the real causes. Our god complex is so elevated that we need to place ourselves at the center of a planetary event.

Doomsday predictions on theories have always been good for movies and to sell newspapers and magazines but extremely hard for the public to grasp. Not because they don’t hold some truth, but simply because they are not physical. If the media was not there to constantly remind us, day after day, every single day of the year, that climate change is the biggest challenge our world is facing, no one would even notice. All these predictions end up sounding more like “end of days” prophecies, shouted to who ever wants to listen. And that is part of the problem. Climate change is an observation, or rather an ideology debated on beliefs. For some it will be good and for others, it will be bad. How can we compare that to historical and factual events where hundreds of millions died?

Lets stop wasting the hundreds of millions spent on a science that is highly questionable and biased, depending on which side you stand, and lets invest in ways to decrease our impact and perhaps rethink, and reassess the principles and values by which we live. Lets look at past Empires, Societies and Global Powers that have collapsed and learn from them. If we are so intelligent, it shouldn’t be a problem right?

“In our disenchanted, post-religious, ultra-technological era, catastrophes can no longer be rendered meaningful as part of a natural cycle or as an expression of divine wrath … like the anthropomorphic universe, magically designed for man’s comfort, the so-called balance of nature, which humankind brutally destroys with its hubris, is a myth … Catastrophes are part of natural history … Gradual or sudden change in our environment, about which science can do little more than offer a warning, may force unheard-of social and cultural transformations … Maybe it’s time to reverse our concept of what is possible and what isn’t; maybe we should accept the impossibility of omnipotent immortality and consider the possibility of radical social change. If nature is no longer a stable order on which we can rely, then our society should also change if we want to survive in a nature that is no longer the good caring mother, but a pale and indifferent one.”  Slavo Zizek

Conservation 2.0

“The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers

One of the biggest problems we have with conservation is that all our efforts are based on a principle of knowledge. We firmly believe that yesterday’s abuses were done because of a lack of understanding. The extermination of buffalos and wolves happened because we didn’t understand their crucial role in their surrounding ecosystems. The decimation of whales and seals in the 17th century was accomplished because we didn’t know there were not unlimited numbers of them. Since we consider ourselves the smartest species that ever existed, superior to the natural world precisely because of our ability and capacity for knowledge, we have come to the conclusion that our destruction of the environment was simply due to not understanding it. Therefore, in an attempt to change the individual’s behavior, conservation organizations have for decades based their strategy on amassing huge amounts of data on which they rely to promote their agendas. This concept might have been justified in the past but it is greatly outdated.

Our laws are based on values which our culture has deemed imperative to achieve a moral society. No one is allowed to kill. Child labor is forbidden. Rape is not accepted. Cheating is punishable. Stealing is condemnable, etc. All these moral values exist because they are within a value system that we have chosen, fought for, and voted upon. And most of them, if not all, have their roots in religion, not in science.

Technology has expanded our knowledge to such an extent, that we now count on it to solve absolutely everything. Combined with our belief that because we are so knowledgeable, we won’t be repeating the same mistakes again, we have blinded ourselves to the root of the problem. Knowledge is the Achilles’ heel of today’s culture.

For thousands of years, the natural world has either been seen as a giant basket of resources, or a savage world unfit for human society. It has become secular and empty of any sacredness. It has had no value besides being a means to feeding ourselves. We see the human species independent of all the others, at the top of the chain with only one purpose, to consume. Unfortunately, monotheism is greatly responsible for this. The idea that humans are a divine creation set the stage to a systemic problem. By putting Earth under our dominion, given to us by the Almighty, we see nature as a balance sheet. How can we maximize its output? The more we know, the more we will be able to reap from the natural world. While it is true that we must create a sustainable system where resources can be allowed to replenish themselves, for our society to change its perception of nature, the debate on conservation will have to stop focusing on information and data and make values its primary target. But how can we achieve such a thing?

The dialogue is extremely similar to Alain de Botton’s recent TED speech and in his new book Atheism 2.0. We know there is no God, that is alright, but we must aim for something better than a simple status quo on spirituality. In terms of conservation, we know our lifestyle has been absolutely unsustainable. We know the facts and have all the necessary data. Every new study always points out the obvious. But now we must progress to a new and more enlightened debate.

Conservation organizations have a lot to learn from religious institutions. Both are promoting their particular philosophy on life. Both are trying to convince people of a certain set of values. Religious groups have had tremendous success, while conservation organizations have been beating the stick for as long as we can remember. So what is the big difference? De Botton is quite right in explaining why this has happened. Religion starts with the belief that you are en eternal child, in constant need of reinforcement, with daily, weekly and annual rituals. Repetition is the key and messages are constantly repeated. Science and the conservation community, on the other hand believe that you simply have to publish a report and people will remember it forever. They believe that you only need to show the problems for the system to correct itself. They think of humans as rational beings capable of constantly making objective choices based on the information they have been given. In other words, Religion understands that we are emotional beings made of flesh and blood, while the other camp appear to believe we are walking brains.

In our modern society, consumerism and entertainment are the main religion. Why? Because all our rituals celebrate these two. We sit in front of tv together, we eat in front of tv together, we go shopping with each other, and the value of our economy is based on our purchasing power. We consume relationships “online” in the same way we consume food: fast, much of it, and easily. We are obsessed with our gadgets and possessions. And this is, what our children learn. As they spend so much time in front of the television, they understand from an early age what our priorities are. Advertising simply reinforces this dogma.

Where is nature in all this? It is certainly not sacred. It is certainly not spiritual. It is something less and less experienced. Where are our rituals with nature? At schools? I don’t recall being nature savvy a high priority on the curriculum. At home? When was last time you went camping or hiked through the wilderness? Instead, nature has come to be a battlefield, a distant and disconnected ideology, filled with data and information, under the blanket of more knowledge and better technology. And this is where most of the conservation organizations have decided to conduct their campaigns. People have become environmentalists rather than being naturalists.

With millions poured into conservation each year, we have to reassess the priorities. We need to invest in children, but not to make them aware of all the “nasty and bad” things humans are doing, but rather to help them experience and connect with nature, the wilderness, the untrodden path. We must make ecology mandatory in high school. We must develop some kind of dialogue where the sacredness of nature is developed and taught. Not as a beautified concept, where everything is rosy, but rather as the complex and dynamic system where each living being is interconnected with another and with the environment. If we want to alter the perspective children have of nature today, then we will have to put in place rituals in which they can feel nature as well as being constantly reminded of it.

“All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death than animals that know nothing.” Maurice Maeterlinck

Nature is not in your computer!

“Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.” Richard Louv

The United Nations predicts that by 2030, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. By then, in the U.K., city dwellers will represents 92% of the population. It is quite a sharp contrast to back in 1950, when the world’s urban population represented only 30%. While this new reality clearly shows a growing physical disconnection with nature, another reality, much more subtle, is making people believe otherwise.

When I grew up, there were people who spent a lot of time in nature, and there were people who simply did not. The “outdoor” people were usually fishermen, hunters, campers, hikers, etc. They cared about nature because they spent time in it. The people who rarely ventured away from the asphalt, were, with no shame, just not concerned with the wild world. The environment was not really a debate, but rather a destination. What we learned in school about nature was more scientific, like ecology and biology, alongside geography and history. On television, you had Jacques Cousteau, Jim Fowler, David Suzuki, and David Attenborough. Each was a nature journalist, reporting on the wilderness, out there and out of reach. They showed us wild worlds with amazing animals, feeding our growing appetite for adventure. Back in those days, loving nature didn’t equate with being a vegetarian, or to campaign against animal cruelty. In fact, all the television personalities mentioned above fished or even hunted.

Today, the picture could not be more different. Technology has totally transformed our perception of the wild word.  While nowadays we rarely spend time in nature, people are constantly made aware of it. Discovery and National Geographic stream 24 hour/day entertainment shows. Social media makes it possible for anyone to care about environmental causes, anywhere, independently if they are well informed or affected by it. The Internet allows any individual to post anything they want without any particular context or further explanation.  Not one day goes by without seeing a photo of a baby panda, a dolphin, a shark being butchered or a dead seal entangled in a fishing net. Nature has become an ideology people are fighting for. It is no longer a destination but rather the emotionally charged and personified notion of an animal’s struggle to survive, whether it is the “march of the emperor penguin” or the “fate of the polar bears”. We now live in a world where natural realities are being blown out of proportion and every minute struggle in an animal’s life is over empathized for. Living in cities, feeding ourselves from grocery stores and spending our weekends in the park around the corner, the natural world has become a beautified concept, a Disney story and a pretty picture on the wall. Anything that contradicts this notion is deemed anti-nature or anti-animals. Animal welfare organizations, based in cities, are raging wars against society and anyone who doesn’t agree with their belief that any creature has a soul and humans have no right to take it away. In their view, plastic, genetically created meat, and soy-everything, is the way for the future. A meat eater, a fish eater, or a person wearing leather or fur, independently where and how it was processed, is targeted as cruel and against the natural world. For the indigenous people, who have lived off the land and the sea for millennia, with sustainable practices and honoring their connection with the earth, this intrusion from people who know nothing about their lifestyle and culture is seen as extremely hypocritical and shallow.

Worse, Google Earth and sites like theBlu are advertising themselves as places where one can “explore” the world. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times stated: “It’s a living, breathing ocean that you can “dive into,” exploring underwater habitats from the Indian Ocean to the Sea of Cortez while encountering thousands of fish — as they swim across your computer screen.” The computer screen is nothing like being out in the wilderness. It is nothing like exploring other countries for real or mingling with other cultures. Pressing keys on the keyboard does not make you an explorer nor and adventurer, and even less a naturalist or an environmentalist. Clicking the “Like” button on a Facebook Cause does not mean you care or simply understand what you clicked for. Watching Blue Planet on BBC doesn’t mean you love the ocean. What you love is being entertained by something beautiful. But the natural world is not just a cute teddy bear that you can spend your nights cuddling with. Nature is a raw chaotic world where each creature competes with each other, culminating in a very complex, intertwined balance that took millions of years to create, and CONTINUES to evolve .

By being so physically disconnected from it, we have totally forgotten what nature really is all about. We even go as far as to personalizing it, characterizing it as a female, “Mother Nature”. This concept of singularity simply doesn’t exist. In the natural world, both constructive and destructive forces are essential. Both the attack and the defense are crucial for survival. What is motherly? Volcanoes, hurricanes, droughts? Hyenas eating an antelope alive? A pod of orcas drowning a whale calf?

We have to be careful because our lack of relationship with nature and our disconnection from its dynamics and forces, can have grave consequences. As the Arctic is being developed, westernized countries and their mediatically-sensitized populations will most likely clash with indigenous people and their culture, as it just happened in Greenland. The Inuit have been hunting seals for as long as they can remember. And looking at the number of seals, they have done quite a good job at making sure that their hunt was sustainable. Compared to the western world which has had a reputation of decimating everything it goes for, from whales to fur seals, from wolves to buffalos, from tuna to mackerel.  Because we have done such a bad job with the planet’s resources, or such a good job of exterminating them, we now project our guilt onto others. The EU ban on seal products has created devastating effects on the Inuit’s culture and economy. The ban came after emotionally charged media campaigns, portraying fluffy white baby seals being clubbed to death and skinned. In the name of animal welfare, the EU decided to impose the ban. What people didn’t know was that the Inuit have an ancestral right to hunt. The ban didn’t reduce the number of seals hunted every year in Greenland. What it did, was strip away the right of the Inuit to make a living. Consequently, there are over 300,000 skins in stock in Greenland worth millions for the Inuit. Most likely, the skins will be destroyed, taking away with them the welfare of several communities.

It is crucial to do everything possible to take children outside of the cities, away from the computer and television. They need to experience the real natural world, not the urban or virtual version of it. Tim Kasser, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College, correctly points out in his report: “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability

“While not typically seen as an “environmental issue,” those concerned about the environment should be sobered by the increasing commercialization of childhood, as the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction… What’s more, recent research shows that the materialistic values encouraged by advertising messages are also quite problematic for environmental outcomes. For example, studies around the world make it clear that the more people care about money, wealth, and possessions, the less they value protecting the environment and the less concerned they are about how environmental damage affects other humans, future generations, and non-human life. Other research shows that materialistic values negatively correlate with how frequently adults and children engage in pro-environmental behaviors such as commuting by bicycle, reusing paper, buying secondhand, and recycling.”

Furthermore, We also have to be careful with what we promote and how we promote it. Social media and the Internet won’t make people change their daily routines. It might inform them, make them aware of something, but it is certainly not enough to change them. Writing “Cigarettes will kill you” on a pack doesn’t make someone stop smoking, but paying close to $10 for a pack might.

We might have the knowledge, but we greatly struggle with applying it. Social media, the Internet, computers and television are not a replacement for true wilderness, traveling, or exploring. We must be careful of the pretentious western environmental imperialism we so easily practice. Lets change our own tragically unsustainable culture first. Lets put in place the right legislations, lets decrease our production of garbage, lets reduce our consumption, lets show our children that there is more to life than cities and technology, let ourselves first reconnect with the natural environment and its realities, before telling others, who might be living off the land and sea and have done so in a sustainable way for generations, what they should do.

“We have two kinds of morality side by side:  one which we preach but do not practice and another which we practice but seldom preach. “  Bertrand Russell

Humble enough to listen and tough enough to decide

In the 1960’s during a plague of Crown of Thorns starfishes on the Great Barrier Reef, in the waters of Australia, people decided to counter attack by slicing them into pieces. Whether it is true or not, according to certain reports, their numbers then doubled or quadrupled when each piece of starfish regenerated itself into a full new one.

In 1584, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, a Spanish sailor, established a settlement at Buena Bay (locally known as Mansa Bay) on the west side of the Strait of Magellan, near Punta Arenas in Chile. In less than a couple of years, all 300 plus settlers died of starvation. The unfortunate location is known today as Puerto Hambre or Port Famine (Port Hunger in english!)

In 1819 Sir John Franklin led an expedition in the Canadian Arctic. Of his original crew of 20, 11 died of starvation. Again, in 1845, his famous Northwest Passage expedition got lost and all of his 129 men, himself included, died.

What do those three seemingly unrelated events have in common?

The Crown of Thorns is known to the Fijians as “Na’Bula”, meaning living or alive, reflecting the regenerating power of the starfish. Puerto Hambre is located in an area where the Alacaluf, a Fuegian tribe, had lived for hundreds of years. Franklin’s doomed expedition perished in a place where Inuit had been living for thousands of years.

Each case represents a total lack of consideration for the precious knowledge held by the indigenous people. For the “White Man”, coming from civilized countries, these “people” were considered savage and primitive. Not only were their beliefs in nature seen as a flagrant obstacle to progress, but it was ridiculous to admit that they could know more on how to survive in these remote places than a highly decorated naval officer.

While the natives saw themselves as part of Nature and understood the delicate balance that needed to be respected, the “White Man”, supported by his belief that God had created the earth for him only, plundered the resources as if there would be no tomorrow. Anything found in the way was destroyed. His motto has always been “Act Now, Think Later”. He wants something, he gets it, then deals with the consequences later. He decimated the buffalos, the wolves and the whales. On the Pribilof islands in the Bering Sea, he succeeded in reducing to almost zero a population of fur seals that was considered limitless. When the resources were gone, he simply moved to another location and proceeded again. Where the indigenous people managed to live off nature for centuries, the “White Man” only took decades to destroy everything.

Not much has changed today. Reading recently about the incredible and fast decline of stock of Mackerels off the coast of Chile, we don’t seem to have learned anything. We keep repeating the same pattern over and over. The only difference is that today with our technology, we do it much faster.

The natives have warned us since the beginning that our lives were unsustainable. That our lifestyle and values would destroy the earth’s resources. We laughed at them and told them that we had amazing technology that would fix everything.

…overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax. Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms. And so, Icarus fell into the sea…

This Greek myth is a premonition about our culture of consumption. Obsessed by satisfying our desires and pleasures we have forgone common sense and wisdom. We have lost the ability to limit ourselves. Blind to any consequences, we plunge into our ego centered lives and quietly hope for salvation. We take pride in our intelligence, bragging about our inventions and technology, believing that only WE have the power to save the world. But are we really that smart or simply extremely arrogant? One thing for sure is that we are not a mature civilization. Mature is by definition something that is based on slow and careful consideration. Which lies at the total opposite spectrum of how we operate.

And in those moments, when everything around us is crumbling, we look at our leaders for guidance and courage. But unfortunately, as Margaret Thatcher said: “One of the great problems of our age is that we’re governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.” Will our world find the humility to listen to the indigenous tribes and have the courage and strength to take the necessary decisions to move towards a sustainable growth? Will the Arctic become the stage for a new kind of development or sadly be an “Encore” of a very bad show? A dialogue like the one recently put forward by Prince Charles is a good step in the right direction. The only thing it takes is people that are willing to make the right decisions rather than wanting to please everyone.

“In the distant past, scientists often ignored and even made fun of the knowledge of indigenous people. But we now recognize that people who live off the land for generations know more than researchers will discover with years of investigation.” Smithsonian Blog

The Future of the Arctic

Welcome to the Extreme & Polar Islands Conservation (E.P.I.C.) blog. Weekly posts will explore conservation issues that pertain mainly to the Polar regions: their oceans and their remote islands.

The Future of the Arctic

For anyone involved in oil, mining, gas or conservation, it is no secret by now that the North is where most of the attention will be locked for the next decade. It is extremely ironic that the consequences of our lifestyle on the planet’s ecosystem have opened a once-inaccessible and pristine region for development, giving our industrial world a much needed life line. The timing could have not been more perfect for some, and the worst for others. The pressures on the planet’s resources have never been so high, ever. Living off nature is nothing new, at the end we are an earth species living in a complex web of dependencies. What is different today is the scale of our consumption and the role human has taken in the food chain as both the predator and the grazer.

A predator is a constructive element in the food chain. Its goal is to keep in check the numbers of more invasive species. These species, if not controlled have the power to eradicate the resources. The grazers in return help keeping a balance in the plant wold. Nature is this amazing relationship-based system, where each living organism plays its part for the planet’s equilibrium. In fact, without these dynamic “boundaries”, each would have the potential to destroy its own environment.

The problem today is that we hunt like predators and consume and reproduce like grazers. In other words, we consume the resources from both ends, without a care in the world, thinking that this candle will just keep burning forever. While at the same time populating the earth at a rate that any virus would envy.

What will happen to the Arctic? We have just passed the 7 billion mark in population. We have eaten our way through the Pacific and the Atlantic. We have used most of the oil from the fields so far discovered. And we have cut down pretty much everything. The Arctic is offering new waters to fish, new minerals to extract, new oil fields to drill, new forests to cut and new land to built cities. Worse, our past record in managing new resources is nothing to be proud of. We decimate before we care. The pressure to deliver “cheap” material and “cheap” food for this ever increasing world does not help any conservation matters. So what to do?

The complexity of the situation is not to be taken lightly. At one extreme, you have the people who simply want the entire north to stay off-limit: no development, nothing. At the other end, you have the people for whom this new territory is just another dot on the map with precious and extremely valuable resources. You also have the native communities, who for many years, have been kept quiet by subsidies. They now find themselves at the frontline of a new gold rush and they want to be included. Some countries are drooling over the rewards the Arctic could reap, while others, already exhausted over interior issues and financial realities can’t seem to know what foot to dance on. Finally you have everything in between. In this “open internet sensationalized media world” everyone has a right for its opinion and a platform to share it.

Politicians, independently of what they will do or decide, will be screamed at and vilified. If it is not the fishermen angry for not being able to make a living, it will the conservationists, the public, the corporations, the native communities – there won’t be anywhere where governments can hide. Still, they have to make decisions. And their decisions are most of the time based on what will bring them reelected next year. If that was not enough, we live in a world where no one pays the real price for its lifestyle. And no one wants to pay more. We want cheap food, cheap electronics and cheap energy.

The development of the Arctic will go on, whether we want it or not. The question is: How will it go? In 1996 the Arctic Council was formed precisely to look over the process. Formed by the delimiting countries: Canada, USA, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, it mission is to:

To provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

Also at the Council table are France, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. Although their role, is to observe and suggest but not to participate in the decision making. In recents years, other countries, such as China, Brazil, India, Japan and the EU have clearly lobbied for a right to be involved. In their views, what happens in the North, happens everywhere. The world is so global, that no one has the luxury to ride without the others. In the extreme scenario where much of the Arctic disappears, these waters will be international and free for all to navigate.

The challenge will be to manage on a sustainable level this eager group of developers. Playing the NO card is not a wise strategy. In fact, it would absolutely be counter productive. The corporations have the funds and the political will (lets not forget also the reality that the world demands their products!) to exploit as much as they can first and deal with the consequences later. So to simply oppose to their power and fight fire with fire, would accomplish nothing. It would be a waste of people’s money, but more importantly it would erase any chance of working with these companies at guiding them in their developing process. Everyone involved will need to be pragmatic. Conservation groups need to understand the economical realities we face and the corporations need to accept their responsibilities towards the environment.

Instead of pretending that nothing will happen, that no accidents will occur, or that no one will ever drill in the Arctic, what must be achieved is a constructive discussion where everyone is enticed at working to avoid and prepare for the worst. Like a teen coming of age of driving, there is no point to prohibit the inevitable. What you can do is guide, instruct and prepare so that when something bad happens (and it will!) it doesn’t come as a surprise and the mechanisms to repair are already in place.