The Commons and the Conscience

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

As you may already know, in my last two posts, I have been thinking about ways for people to change their way of thinking about our relationship to the natural world.  Once again, as Philip Loring wrote, we are not intrinsically at odds with nature even though many other great minds have paved the way for us to have this type of attitude.  In his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World,” Loring mentioned the late Garrett Hardin, a professor of biology at University of California, Santa Barbara who published the influential “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968.  The tragedy of the commons is an elaborate metaphor and philosophy Hardin uses to demonstrate how we humans are exhausting the earth and to suggest how we can, either for the better or worse of our personal freedoms, make a big change.  Ultimately, this is our own choice.

So, what are these “commons” that Hardin is speaking of?  Imagine the commons as an enormous stretch of open farmland.  A farmer may start out putting a small herd of cows (their own personal resource) onto this vast pasture (a resource that must be shared).  This person will eventually come to realize that they will benefit from adding more cows to their herd.  As they add the animals one by one, they will have more meat and milk for themselves or cows to sell or trade for other resources.  How will adding just a small amount of cows, or even just one more cow to the herd make a real impact?  An impact is made because this particular farmer is not the only one expanding their herd.  If every farmer puts just one more cow out into the pasture while only thinking about how they will benefit from the animal, the pasture will inevitably become too crowded.

Many problems will come along with this overcrowding.  Since this pasture is a shared public resource, all cows and all farmers will be affected.  The pasture will become overgrazed, so all people will not have an equal chance to use the land and expand their own herds.  Such farmers will be pushed out of the land and given less opportunity to support themselves because there is simply not enough space.  Now, let’s step back and look at how this harms the natural world and not just the humans.  If the cows eat up all of the grass in the pasture, the land is destroyed and cannot replenish itself quickly enough to sustain the cows.  Our overzealous actions in this scenario cause a domino effect that will only hurt us in the end by depleting our personal property and supplies of important resources.  (This is just my own, as brief as possible interpretation of this metaphor!  Read “Tragedy of the Commons” in full at http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html)

This is how an important topic of debate today falls into place—the issue of how such a small percentage of people seemingly end up with a large percentage of wealth, resources and opportunities.  Hardin explains how many other currently relevant topics are affected by the idea of the commons as well.  We think that if we choose to do whatever we want with land because we own it or if we have many children because we can currently afford to support them, it is not anyone’s business to interfere.  The truth, Hardin fears, is that we do not think of the long-term consequences of our own choices or how they will impact future generations.  According to him, the solutions to human actions that deplete the earth (like pollution and overpopulation) are to either take personal accountability for our actions out of our own free will or governmental measures may have to be put into place to ensure a better future for humans and non-human living things alike.

This second option surely seems bleak to many people.  It brings to mind many questions like, who can tell us how many children we can have, how much land we can own and whether or not we destroy that land if we so choose?  Why does this matter to anyone else if these things are our own?  It matters because our choices always have consequences—if not on ourselves, then on future generations, on those less fortunate than ourselves and on all of those voiceless but nonetheless, breathing and living things in this world.  This is where the shift in thinking that Loring writes of comes into play.  Aspects of Hardin’s view seem like an ominous vision of the world to come, but things do not need to go that far.  We do not need to fear the loss of our freedoms if we can learn to adapt to living in a more sustainable way.  We need to realize that small actions do make a difference and can add up to a way of life that helps us exist more harmoniously with our world, each other and even our own consciences.

For more real world examples of the tragedy of the commons, check out http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/ten-reallife-examples-of-the-tragedy-of-the-common.html.

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The Good Yet to be Done

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

Last week, I wrote a post inspired by the ideas of Philip Loring in his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World.” As a quick refresher, the article centers around the idea that we humans have long thought of ourselves as naturally at odds with the environment and all living non-human things. Why shouldn’t we think this way, when so many writings, teachings and experiences of the past have left us believing that we cannot thrive as a species without harming the natural world?

This is the type of thinking that this article is trying to help us to correct. Loring presents several writers, leaders and pieces of literature that have left us feeling like we are doing more harm than good in this world (see the article at http://ensia.com/voices/its-time-for-a-new-story-of-humanitys-place-in-the-world/ for specific examples). Loring points out the flaws in that logic, and so, once again, I want to present another piece of writing to support the idea that while we have done our damage, there is still so much good yet to be done.

Since we need to move ourselves away from old ideas, I think it is important to look at familiar and much-loved works from new perspectives. I wrote about “The Road Not Taken” last week as it is a poem that is a favorite of or at least familiar to so many of us. Now, I want to introduce you to a song I have loved for quite some time from a band that has been one of my favorites for the past ten years or so. The verses of “The Good Left Undone” by Rise Against immediately came to mind for this post because I have seen a lot of arguments for why the lyrics of this song, like “The Road Not Taken,” shouldn’t be taken at face value and should be instead used to think about making an important personal decision, like walking away from a loved one. I always thought of the lyrics in a more literal sense, and I think other people could learn a few things from considering them differently! I should note here too that this band is known for their commentary on political and social issues, so I think looking for a double meaning is appropriate. The lyrics are as follows:

In fields where nothing grew but weeds
I found a flower at my feet
Bending there in my direction

I wrapped a hand around its stem
And pulled until the roots gave in
Finding there what I’ve been missing
And I know

So I tell myself, tell myself, it’s wrong
There’s a point we pass
From which we can’t return
I felt the cold rain of the coming storm

All because of you, I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore, where I can lay my head down
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

Inside my hands these petals browned
Dried up fallen to the ground
But it was already too late now

I pushed my fingers through the earth
Returned this flower to the dirt
So it could live, I walked away now but I know

Not a day goes by when I don’t feel this burn
There’s a point we pass
From which we can’t return
I felt the cold rain of the coming storm

All because of you I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore where I can lay my head down
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

All because of you
All because of you

All because of you I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore where I can lay my head down
Inside these arms of yours

All because of you I believe in angels
Not the kind with wings no, not the kind with halos
The kind that bring you home
When home becomes a strange place
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

One of the first things that jumps out at me is the fact that the song starts with “in fields where nothing grew but weeds,” as if to say that beautiful, useful or even life-changing things like that single little flower that gets plucked are rare; everything else is unattractive, disposable or detrimental. The flower gets forcefully picked in what seems like a selfish act, because don’t we all need to collect the best and brightest things for ourselves before they catch anyone else’s eye? There is something a bit off with all of this! We need to find a way to shift our thinking to appreciate and care for everything that appears as “weeds.” We cannot covet and hoard only the best things for ourselves, leaving castoffs for everyone and everything else as well as creating a lot of waste in the process. If we continue to do so, the conditions for inequality are created, pushing us as humans to desperate measures for survival, as Loring describes. When we are pushed to our limits just to get by, the natural world suffers too.

Luckily, by the next verse, a shift in thinking occurs. The flower is returned to the soil, but the problem is that it was only replanted because it was dying. A clear mistake was made, but what is important is that this person now knows better for the next time. They realize that what they did is wrong, and I think the repetition of the lyrics “I felt the cold rain of the coming storm” symbolizes that this person has had the realization that if actions like theirs are repeated, there will be harmful consequences for both humans and nature on a larger scale. The uprooting and replanting of the single flower in this song is a seemingly simple action. It is true that we cannot undo many of our past actions this simply, if at all. However, not making a change because we think it will be too difficult will keep us at odds at nature, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Changing our ways of thinking, finding new ways to thrive and keeping the earth alive and well for all living things will not be easy, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done and that the small actions like the metaphorical one of this song don’t add up. This action makes a powerful statement that the little things that we are all capable of do count. All the little things add up to something bigger than ourselves, and we can all be the kind of angel without wings or a halo who shouts out to the rest of the world to make a difference.

Finding the Lost Ladybugs

By:  Priscilla Hayes

Children participating in the Lost Ladybug Search in Ithaca, NY, 2008-2009.  Photo by Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth.
Children participating in the Lost Ladybug Search in Ithaca, NY, 2008-2009. Photo by Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth of the Lost Ladybug Project.

A week or so ago, as snow fell outside the window, I spoke with Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth of the Lost Ladybug Project, which was started in 2008 to coordinate efforts to survey ladybug populations, first in New York State, and then, across the country.  This blog post, as promised, will have lots of information on this wonderful resource, meant to help track the various ladybug species, and give a sense of which ones are losing ground and which are more dominant.  The website, www.lostladybug.org, has step by step directions about how to look for, observe, document, and submit data and photos for ladybugs.  The site contains links to two 4-H Science Toolkits designed to help teachers and others guide children in grades K-2 and 3-6 respectively in learning about, observing, and collecting data on ladybugs in their local area.  The website and the toolkits both contain loads of fascinating information about ladybugs, including the interactions between native ladybugs and introduced Asian ladybugs.  The website also includes a number of free-standing curricular units, besides those in the two toolkits.

Ladybugs, both native and introduced, eat the same range of things.  Ladybugs eat aphids, of course, and lots of soft-bodied insects and insect eggs smaller than themselves.  Since many, if not all, ladybugs eat pollen as well, they may be found on flowers and corn plants, eating pollen.  While on a corn plant, they may eat a tiny just-hatched corn borer larva (or the egg that preceded it), but only if it is accessible.  They wouldn’t be digging in after corn borer larvae which have themselves bored into an ear of corn, so ladybugs aren’t a predator humans can count on to keep this pest from eating fields of sweet corn, so this essentially confirms what Dr. George Hamilton had told me for the preceding ladybug post.

Ladybugs even eat ladybug larvae, since these are also soft-bodied insects smaller than themselves

All species are capable of having multiple hatchings of eggs in a year, but the reproductive cycle gets interrupted more often and for longer periods of time in colder and dryer parts of the country and world.  In other words, in New Jersey and other parts of the country/world where we have a true winter, a ladybug will go into diapause—remember, that is ladybug hibernation—and won’t begin to reproduce again until leaving diapause.

There are many native species of ladybugs, but of the natives, Dr. Smyth says that three species have “suddenly practically disappeared.”  Dr. Smyth indicated that their disappearance is dramatic, since these three were once virtually ubiquitous.

Since crops attract and promote populations of the insect or animal species that ladybugs eat, they are often found in agricultural settings.  The ladybugs help control those species, especially aphids.  Asked about whether ladybugs are disappearing overall, Dr. Smyth indicated that agricultural surveys of ladybugs do not seem to indicate an overall decline across all ladybug populations.  As to ladybugs in non-agricultural settings, the Lost Ladybug Project hears primarily—or perhaps only—from those who have seen ladybugs.  Dr. Smyth agreed it would be hard to determine whether there has been any overall population decline based on those reported—and necessarily—positive observations.  Moreover, ladybug populations, like those of any other creature (except perhaps humans), vary somewhat based on yearly weather and other variable yearly conditions, so that it would be hard to say whether any observed decline in one year meant an overall decline.  All of this makes it very important to assist the Lost Ladybug Project by reporting ladybug sightings, in order to increase the data available to them and to other researchers.

Cycloneda munda found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, October 5th, 2009.  Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.
Cycloneda munda found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, October 5th, 2009. Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.

Each species of ladybugs has its own “specialties” in terms of the habitat and microclimates which it prefers—and where it is most well-adapted.  Some like high trees, some prefer lower areas.  Even what the aphids are eating goes into ladybug location preferences—after all, the juice of each plant being sucked by aphids has a different chemical composition and each ladybug species tolerates a certain range of chemicals more easily.  Since the presence of native plants is generally correlated to native ladybug development, planting native species which support ladybug food sources can help encourage native ladybug population growth.

The chief reasons introduced Asian ladybugs have been more successful than natives is that, generally, the Asians eat faster and more of the ladybug foods and grow faster and better than their native counterparts.

When asked to explain why I—and my local area of New Jersey with me—had crowds of Asian ladybugs invading our homes in 1993 and only a very few now, Dr. Smyth explained that when first introduced, a species like the Asian ladybugs experience fast population growth, then, over time, that growth and population itself subsides.  She indicated that since 2008, the percentage of the Asian ladybugs and another currently dominant species, the seven spotted ladybugs, which was introduced from Europe, have not changed that much.  Still, none of the ladybug species native to the Eastern United States was ever as dominant as these two have become.

Humans appreciate ladybugs for their eating of various critters that eat our crops.  I asked Dr. Smyth why humans should care about some species disappearing, if Asian ladybugs are eating aphids and the other soft-bodied insects that we want to see gone.  Dr. Smyth pointed out that while current conditions support the dominance of the Asian and seven spotted ladybugs, conditions could easily change.  In changed conditions, the species which have disappeared will likely not be able to rebound to pick up the slack.  Moreover, even in the absence of changed conditions, when individual native species begin to disappear, their “specialties” in terms of where and what they ate as well as what plants they favored for finding food disappear, and, again, there may be no one available to perform the same ecosystem functions that they performed.

More importantly, as one or two species become so dominant at the expense of others, the stability of the entire system is weakened.  Likely, as the book A Gap in Nature indicates, we can expect the ladybug disappearances to cascade—or, as Ray Archuleta stated it, “there are no hardy species” (see the blog post “Connecting the Gap Between Humans and Nature” for more on the project behind the book, as well as Ray’s work as a soil scientist).  When one species is threatened or eliminated, others begin to disappear as well.

So what should we do?  Should we all buy mass quantities of ladybugs and release them?

Harmonia axyridis, found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, August 17th, 2009.  Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.
Harmonia axyridis found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, August 17th, 2009. Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.

The ladybugs currently being sold are generally of the Hippodamia convergens variety (although web research suggests that Asian ladybugs, Harmonia axyridis, may be for sale as well).  These ladybugs are collected from the wild, and the collection, mailing, and release processes all seem to impact survival negatively.  Reported sightings of these ladybugs in the release areas reflect far fewer ladybugs than those reported released, which could, of course, also reflect a shortage of ladybug food.  It is possible that released ladybugs are leaving the release area to find better food sources elsewhere.

Dr. Smyth indicated that all this has led the Lost Ladybug Project to begin thinking about raising selected native species, and making these available to be released.  In the meantime, she agreed with me that you need to look at the problem “at the landscape level,” and promote landscape in your yard which will, in turn, promote ladybug population growth and retention.  So, the homeowner or school garden educator needs to be able to tolerate a certain level of continued aphid populations, and probably continued populations of other things we think of as “pests,” which serve as food sources for ladybugs—or other insects, birds, and other animals that we humans consider beneficial.  In order to promote the continued existence of these food sources, we need to make sure we have plants for them to eat, which might include “trap crops” for aphids.  We need to make space in our landscapes for a whole ecosystem, if we want any part of that ecosystem to be successful.

This is the idea behind one of my new favorite books, The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy.  I will be reviewing the book in one or more future posts.

Connecting the Gap Between Humans and Nature

By:  Priscilla Hayes

Am I being superstitious or karmic to believe that every time we casually and callously bring about the extinction of a creature or plant, we are moving ourselves towards our own extinction year by year?  I have in my mind a chart from the wonderful Ray Archuleta (if you don’t know him, everyone should).  Ray is a soil scientist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service who has a schematic (see below) of interconnected organisms in healthy soil.  As the schematic shows, each organism is crucial to the survival of the rest.  When something we humans do kills one kind of organism, it often leads to collapse of another species, and so on.  Soil health is lost, and the whole network begins to collapse.

ray-archuleta-slides.pptx

So too, with extinctions—I believe that Earth’s ecological network will begin to collapse.  We humans cannot believe ourselves immune, since we, too, are one of Earth’s organisms that is supported by many others.  And we are supported by not just the animals we keep as livestock and the plants we grow in neat farm rows.  Could we live if we wiped out all species except those we utilize to create food, clothing, shelter, and the other “things” of our lives?  I fear that we will wake up one day to a catastrophic collapse in systems that seems like it happened overnight, but really, is the sum of all the extinctions we have left in our wake.

It could be happening some places already.  It turns out that Guam, the island where I spent my senior year of high school, could be the place where something like this gets played out first.

Since the loss of the flying-fox, Guam has experienced a cascade of extinctions, brought about by the introduction of the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis).  As a result its forests are now largely silent, the island having lost many of its pollinators and fruit dispersers.  The fate of Guam’s ecology in the wake of such destruction should be of much interest to biologists, as many regions may come to resemble it in future.

This quote, from a wonderful book called A Gap in Nature:  Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals, seems carefully worded to me, leaving the horror of extinctions on an island scale to the imagination of the reader.  The book was a four-year project of Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten, who together, examined written and museum specimen evidence for hundreds of extinct or possibly extinct animals, and then chose 123 of them for which the evidence was sufficient to create a life-size portrait of the animal in its known native habitat before extinction.

The paintings are stunning, even reproduced and less than full-size within the book.  The stories of extinction are stunning too, partly in their similarity.  When the first humans would arrive at an island that had never seen humans, the creatures there were curious about this new life—to their peril, since humans would bludgeon or stab the curious creatures easily.  When only a few remained, people eager to add to their collections of stuffed zoological curiosities consistently shot the last of the species.  Or, cats, rats, foxes and snakes that humans brought with them, whether by chance or on purpose, generally made sure that any survivors disappeared.

So, what would life in the future look like for Guam, with its ecology wiped out?  We can keep the island humans on life support by importing all the food they need.  Even when I lived on Guam, many of the necessities like milk were imported—there weren’t any cows, and no real farming, that I could discern.  So, we drank a reconstituted milk called Milkman, and lots of Hawaiian Punch, which I thought was sort of ironic at the time.  But what if the plants just start vanishing, along with the pollinators?  Or at least the native ones?  How much ecological life support can we sustain?  Will Guam be able to show us how fragile the “web of life” is, and our own need for diversity of species?

It could be that I am also influenced by my childhood love for science fiction.  In the famous short story, A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury, humans invent a time-travel system that allows wealthy humans to travel back and see the dinosaurs and other ancient creatures.  In order that time not be changed, the traveler must remain on an elevated walkway.  One traveler leaves the walkway for long enough to kill a butterfly.  On his return to the present, the man discovers that a Nazi-like society has taken over the world, just from the changes cascading down from that one death.  How much more must the death of a whole species of individuals change the world?

Ray Archuleta is a “soil health” advocate for the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Read about him at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/soils/health/?cid=stelprdb1049238

For a detailed and comprehensive website on what soil health is, and who are the organisms that live in soil and ultimately support life on Earth, see http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health/

My favorite part of this website is on the soil food web, at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/soils/health/biology/?cid=nrcs142p2_053868