Eugene Linden
home   |   contact info   |   biography   |   publications   |   radio/tv   |   musings   |   short takes   

Lastest Musing

A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

continue

Featured Book

The Ragged Edge of the World
Buy from Amazon

more info

Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation
fragging

Books

Winds of Change
Buy from Amazon

more info
Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
more info


The Future In Plain Sight
more info


The Parrot's Lament
more info


Silent Partners
more info


Affluence and Discontent
more info


The Alms Race
more info


Apes, Men, & Language
more info


SustainableFollies

BY EUGENE LINDEN


Monday, May. 24, 1993
HOW ARE AFRICAN ELEPHANTS SIMILAR TO MINKE whales? Neither animal is in immediate danger of extinction, but both are protected by international hunting bans because past efforts to exploit the beasts commercially have driven their populations into precipitous decline. Countries that have well- managed elephant herds, including Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, are eager to sell ivory, just as Norway and Japan want to kill whales. But conservationists are loath to exempt specific nations from the ivory-trade ban for fear that any traffic in tusks will bring a reprise of the rampant cheating that occurred before sales became illegal in 1989.

When it comes to exploiting nature, humans seem to be like alcoholics: either on the wagon or on a binge. The fashionable and optimistic belief that humans can reap nature's bounty in a controlled fashion -- an ideal known as "sustainable use" that has long been the prevailing philosophy of conservationists as well as many businessmen -- is turning out to be a chimera.

Though many of the world's fisheries are ostensibly managed on a sustainable basis, important species are in danger. Among them: bluefin tuna, cod and haddock in the Atlantic; certain varieties of grouper and snapper in the Gulf of Mexico; and sardines and anchovies in the Pacific. The United Nations and World Bank sponsored the Tropical Forestry Action Plan to sustain forests, but instead the plan spurred further deforestation. When asked by an environmentalist what he meant by sustainable, a World Bank agronomist replied, "Fifty years of timber production." Even the rubber tappers of Brazil's Amazon rain forest, who along with their martyred leader, Chico Mendes, became symbols of the sustainable use of tropical forests, overexploit their ecosystem. Writing in the journal BioScience, John Browder notes that in search of food and sources of cash, these seringueiros can kill off wildlife and cut forests as much as settlers do.

Sustainable use is not some fringe idea, but rather the central organizing principle for global environmental policy, a concept refined over two decades at international conferences. It is often paired with "sustainable development" -- the notion that economic development, if carried out in a careful manner, can proceed without exhausting the natural resources needed by future generations. As recently as last June during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, governments tried to forge an action agenda based on sustainable development.

Now, however, scientists are beginning to acknowledge that theories of sustainable use and development almost never work in practice. "What we are seeing is that conservation and development are not the same process," says the Wildlife Conservation Society's John Robinson, a leading revisionist on sustainable use. "If you are interested in development, you cannot get there by doing conservation, simply because the most diverse ecosystems are usually not the most productive in human terms." This means that development almost always brings losses of biological diversity. Instead of preserving the variety of a rain forest, for example, humans have the urge to chop down the trees and plant uniform crops.

What's good for society in the long run is of no immediate concern to people who use up natural resources. Given the high cost of modern fishing equipment, an individual fisherman is driven to catch every last fish rather than limit catches and ensure long-term supply. And no matter how good the plan to manage an ecosystem, some people will cheat.

Environmentalists cling to the idea of sustainable development because it enables them to present themselves as advocates of economic progress and, as Robinson puts it, "the concept allows them to play with the big boys and have an impact on huge development projects." If sustainable development proves illusory, environmentalists will be left with a huge problem: there is no big idea ready to fill the void. With human numbers expected to double in the next 60 years, policymakers must now find some new trail map that will enable humanity to walk the ledge between rising material expectations and the wholesale collapse of the biosphere.

Robinson believes environmentalists will have to embrace anew the politically incorrect concept of pure preservation for some vital areas. For their part, policymakers must try to guide development away from sensitive ecosystems and toward regions where inevitable losses of diversity are more "acceptable." An economics that accurately accounted for the costs of destroying species would also help. Most likely, though, a sustainable future will not come from policy wonks, but rather from a broad change in values as ordinary people react to ecological disasters around them.

contact Eugene Linden

Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



read more
  designed and maintained by g r a v i t y s w i t c h , i n c .
Eugene Linden. all rights reserved.