Saturday, August 13, 2011

Musings: Look Up

The moon, building toward full today, got me up and out in the night, not because it was disturbing, but because it was so boldly beautiful I felt it was my duty, my privilege, to leave sleep and pay homage; to stand out beneath it in the chill air, silent save for crickets and water running through a stream, the sky an interplay of racing clouds and light.

And I thought of what artist Keala Kai, who was raised by people born in the 1800s, had said during an interview the day before:

My grandfather always told me, ‘look up’ but today, with cell phones, too many people look down.

It’s a concept I’ve thought about in regard to light pollution in the night sky: what will happen (is happening) to our species as we lose contact with the stars, a sphere that has been an integral part of human existence since the beginning, save for the last half-century or so?

What happens when we no longer instinctively look up, and out, when we’ve dropped our gaze, narrowed our world to the size of a screen?

Earlier this week, the financial advisor who manages the 401-K accounts where I work came to talk to us about investments, and did a hard sell for stocks, which, as he showed us in a graph, had gone consistently up for the past 100 years, save for some rather dramatic peaks and valleys along the way, and there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t continue thus for another century.

“Why is it that governments, businesses, people all around the world, believe that it can all just keep growing, going up forever?” asked a friend, when we were talking later. “That’s not real, except if you’re talking about the population.”

Yes, the tightly interlocked world economy is based on the fallacy of limitless growth, even as the global ecosystem shudders, raw materials grow scarce, pollution builds and so many of the key pieces start to go missing.

The best news I heard all week was that the monk seal slated for death at Kure Atoll didn’t show up for his execution. Deemed too aggressive to live, even for a member a gravely imperiled species, federal officials planned to off him — or in official jargon, engage in “lethal removal.”

It’s a reaction that’s so typically American — I’m sure the Norwegians could have found a different solution — and it comes, of course, with a rationalization:

NOAA believes this action is necessary for the long-term survival of the species. While every animal is precious in a population that continues to decline, concern for the overall species needs to be a priority. Not taking action at this time would put these pups, juveniles and those born in the future at continued risk.

It seems that the seals — named KE18 and KO42 — have been observed attacking young seals, and are suspected of causing some deaths. What I found fascinating was how wildlife staff responded:

To protect pups from immediate threats from males and to also discourage the males from future interactions with pups, KE18 and KO42 were subjected to what is called “aversive conditioning”. This includes approaching, yelling at and throwing objects (rocks, coral, sticks, debris) at these males in an attempt to make them flee areas where pups haul out. Initially these interventions occurred during attacks; however, once the two males displayed a pattern of aggression, staff intervened upon sighting either male.

In the past, NOAA officials banished bad seals to Johnston Atoll — you know, the place where they burn all the chemical weapons — but they were never seen again, and presumed dead by shark attack or starvation. That was deemed too cruel.

As for lifetime incarceration, apparently only four facilities have the proper permits, and none could take the troublemaker right now. But since the permit process is so lengthy, no other facility could get one in time to capture the male this season — when the atoll is accessible by boat — and they didn’t want to risk any attacks next year.

So they passed down a death sentence, most likely by shooting, since it’s more convenient than cleaning up the chemicals.

“Talk about making your own bad press,” observed a scientist friend.

And talk about focusing on the tree rather than the forest. As NOAA itself writes, emphasis added:

Hawaiian monk seals are declining in the NWHI, largely due to low juvenile survival. The primary cause of mortality of young animals appears to be food limitation; however shark predation, entanglement in marine debris and male aggression also contribute to losses of young seals.

In other words, the seals are starving to death. And why? Because of dramatic changes to their habitat that can be directly attributed to humans through overfishing, pollution and climate change.

But dealing with the root cause and engaging in massive habitat restoration requires the kind of sacrifices and financial outlays that humans don’t want to make.

So instead, they shoot a male aggressor or two, mug seals and swab their orifices and kidnap babies from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to rear in a facility off Kona, only to release them back into the same trashed habitat.

It’s not unlike what’s happened with the endangered forest birds, raised in captivity, and in the case of the alala, held there, because the forest, with its rats and mosquitoes and alien plants, is too dangerous for their return.

Until we get the habitat restoration side down, much of what we’re doing amounts to little more than what one scientist termed “conservation masturbation.”

We gotta start looking up and out, folks. Not down.


Anonymous said...

The human race is such a disappointment.

Anonymous said...

“lethal removal.”
Was once used to remove bad actors in the human society. We should re-instate it ASAP!