Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Crisis of Civilization: a fun, uplifting preview of the end of the world?!

[vimeo w=500&h=283]

The Crisis of Civilization, due to premiere [in London] tomorrow, is a documentary film that is remarkably pleasant to watch considering its subject mattert: the looming destruction of civilisation as we know it.

The film looks into how “global crises like ecological disaster, financial meltdown, dwindling oil reserves, terrorism and food shortages are converging symptoms of a single, failed global system.”

Over less than 80 minutes of running time, Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, the principal narrator of the film – and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It – draws a compelling portrait of the emerging economical, political and environmental trends that are likely to shape our common future over the next few decades.

His thesis is devastating in its simplicity: unless structural changes are introduced to the way we run our world, we won’t make it past this century, possibly not even the halfway mark.

That sure sounds like a fun evening at the cineplex, doesn’t it? Nothing quite like a cheery tour of the end of civilization, eh? Here’s what Grist has to say:

The new documentary The Crisis of Civilization is the most user-friendly exploration of imminent doom you’ll ever see. Through interviews, found footage, and animation, the film actually manages to make the unwinding of our conventional, fossil-fueled, more-is-more industrial civilization accessible. And importantly, it pays just as much attention to solutions as to problems.

Nafeez Ahmed, the documentary’s narrator, whom I’ve interviewed in the past, is a professor of international relations and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It. He’s also smart as hell, knowledgeable on a broad scale, and a master of synthesizing the implications of climate change and peak energy for terrorism, national security, and our increasingly fragile world food supply. In other words, he’s the sort of academic we ignore at our peril.

So how can you ignore that? More importantly, how can you actually go see the film – if you’re not in London this week to catch the free premiere screenings? Try to arrange a local screening yourself – as I’m going to try to do on campus, and locally through Fresno Filmworks, perhaps as part of their next festival.

In the meantime, here’s another clip about the movie:



Cast a vote to help a student blogger win the 2011 Blogging Scholarship

I’ve been a bit remiss in noting this year’s blogging scholarship, which awards $10,000 to a student blogger to help support her/him in college. As readers may recall, last year we helped Nerdy Christie Wilcox overcome a make-up blogger to win the scholarship. This year’s competition has again thrown up a number of diverse bloggers among the finalists. Mixed in among the sports and lifestyle bloggers, are a number of students who write about weightier topics ranging from particle physics and astronomy, to sharks and climate change, to economics. Go look at the entire list – you may find (as did I) that you already read one or more of these blogs, so here’s your chance to help the writers win a scholarship. You will also find good new blogs to keep an eye out as these students develop their writing talent.

Two of the finalists study and blog about topics closest to my own interests, so I would recommend voting for one of these:

David Shiffman, who contributes (as WhySharksMatter) to the Southern Fried Science blog, and is studying sharks for his dissertation:

I’ve been named a finalist in the 2011 blogging scholarship. If I win, it will provide me with $10,000 towards my dissertation research, focusing on the ecological importance of sharks to coral reefs. I’ll also use the money to support our lab’s citizen science program, which has taken over 1,000 high school students and teachers into the field to learn about sharks and participate in an active research program. I’ll also adopt a satellite tagged shark in the name of Southern Fried Science’s readers, let them name it through a contest, and post regular updates about where it is and what it’s likely to be encountering.

David is currently leading the poll, and your votes in the remaining couple of days could ensure he wins the scholarship.

Another worthy blogger to support is Jacquelyn Gill, who writes at the Contemplate Mammoth:

I blog about ecology and climate change over various time scales –ranging from the last ice age to the present– and how our understanding of the past can help prepare us for the future. I also write about my experience in grad school and academia, share book reviews and interesting journal articles, and discuss science literacy, science communication in all forms…and the occasional dung fungus.

She is running 6th in the poll at the moment, so you could help push her numbers up!

Note that voting ends November 30th, and you can vote once per day, via this page:

Go vote, if not early, at least often in the next couple of days!

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

gaon chodab nahi: an anthem for the global #occupy movements

There have been other occupations. There have been other #occupy movements.

Occupation has for long been the name of the game for the colonists. Occupying far corners of the planet. Monopolizing the riches yielded by the earth. Displacing the indigenous inhabitants, the original occupants. Colonizing not just the lands and the bodies, but even the very minds of the peoples of the earth. This is how the global transnational corporate oligarchy has been built. At a faster pace in recent decades, yes, but it has for long been thus.

And long have the colonized, the occupied, sought, and often found, creative ways to resist the occupation. To refuse to be displaced, colonized, overrun, forgotten. To leave behind at least a voice of conscience that echoes through the ages. This is one such powerful voice, from the folk traditions of the indigenous peoples of the Deccan plateau in India, not far from the rocks that gave ancient Gondwanaland its name. Singing this time about dams and mines. Of pepsi and bisleri. Of the never-quenching thirst of the rulers of the first worlds for the lifeblood of the earth, drained from her every vein. Even of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries which displace indigenous people in the name of wildlife they’ve scarcely threatened. A voice that refuses to be silenced, displaced, occupied. A voice urging its people, us, to occupy, reclaim that which was rightfully ours, liberate the earth from the nexus of the money-changers and the politicians with their dogs wielding guns (and pepper-spray). A call to resist that is itself hard to resist.

This is an anthem, surely, for the current occupy movements worldwide. Even if their flames were lit from sparks within the heart of the global empires. For, it turns out, there are third worlds, and colonized peoples, within Manhattan and California as surely as the first world reaches deep within the jungles of central India and the Amazon. We may tweet and facebook our way towards new communities linking arms (violently) across the earth, to begin reoccupying what was/is ours. Let us not forget, however, that there have been, there continue to be, other occupations, other arms linked together, other fists and voices raised in defiance of the very empire some of us helped build. Or, at least, acquiesced in because we got our sips of the pepsi and the bauxite. Until the oligarchs got a bit too greedy even at home, leaving fertile ground thirsting for revolution in their own backyards.

And so, Bhaghwan Maaji’s powerful words and spiritedly plaintive elemental voice echo through the ether(net), and proclaim on behalf of us all: we will not leave our village! We will (re-)occupy our villages.


Gaon Chodab nahi!!



George Schaller on reconciliation ecology as a way to save big cats


OK, he doesn’t quite use the phrase “reconciliation ecology”, but this is exactly the approach George Schaller describes as the only solution to saving the world’s big cats, in his sidebar to the latest National Geographic feature article on tigers.

George Schaller is a truly iconic hero to wildlife biologists, especially of my generation. Well before discovering the excitement of evolutionary ecology (and its heroes like MacArthur and the Grants), I was enthralled by Schaller’s The Deer and the Tiger, a classic account of the very first studies of the tiger and its prey conducted by him in India. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one of my classmates (in the first batch of the brand new Wildlife Sciences Masters program at the Wildlife Institute of India) who read that book multiple times, cover to cover, and really wanted to follow in his footsteps. Some did, and continue to work with big cats and other charismatic wildlife; I got sidetracked upon discovering the broader domains of evolutionary and ecological theory, and the hidden wonders of less charismatic species such as leaf warblers. Yes, I did write a polemic against the overemphasis on conserving tigers while neglecting the “lesser” species; in today’s parlance, you could say I was advocating on behalf of the 99% of the species which don’t get as much love as the warm-n-fuzzy, cuddly/fierce charismatic mammals. I love the big cats too, and count my few encounters with wild tigers among the highlights of my life – but, my main point was, and remains, the imbalance in conservation priorities. I have in recent years expanded my thinking to develop the broader approach of reconciliation ecology, of finding ways to conserve all of biodiversity not merely within remote protected areas, but across the real context of our human-dominated planet, while improving the lives of people who share a disproportionate burden from our protected areas. As Schaller illustrates in this thoughtful piece, that exclusive “reservation ecology” approach has failed even the most charismatic of megafauna, our beloved tigers and their sister big cats. Here’s how he describes his own move towards reconciliation ecology:

When I began fieldwork, it was with the aim not only of studying a species but also of promoting its safety within a protected area. Both such efforts remain essential. But I have had to change my mind-set. Most countries now lack the space to set aside large new areas to support a population of, let us say, 200 snow leopards or tigers. Most existing reserves are small, able to sustain only a few of the great cats—and these may become extinct due to inbreeding, disease, or some accidental event. And as ecosystems shift with climate change, animals will have to adapt, migrate, or die.

So how does one go about protecting big cats, which need space (and, don’t forget, meat)?

Instead of focusing just on discrete, isolated protected areas, conservation has enlarged its vision to manage whole landscapes. The goal is to create a mosaic of core areas without people or development where a leopard or jaguar can breed in peace and security. Such core areas are connected by corridors of viable habitat to enable a cat to travel from one safety zone to another. The remaining area of a landscape is designated for human use.

Easier said than done, of course. While we can paint idyllic pictures of reconciled landscapes with tigers and cattle and peasants living in harmony, the reality of implementing any action towards such an idyll are daunting. Schaller reminds us that the real big hurdle is political will, for:

In the final analysis, conservation is politics—and politics is killing the big cats

Given the failures of the more punitive bureaucratic approaches used so far to protect the big cats, let’s try alternatives:

I wonder if a positive approach might be more effective: Pay communities to maintain healthy great cat populations. After all, it is painfully clear that good science and good laws do not necessarily result in effective conservation. Communities must be directly involved as full partners in conservation by contributing their knowledge, insights, and skills. Aware of this, I have in recent years focused less on detailed science, something I enjoy most, and more on conservation. I have tried to become a combination of educator, diplomat, social anthropologist, and naturalist—an ecological missionary, balancing knowledge and action.

Schaller goes on to write (you really should read the essay in its entirety):

Our greatest challenge is to instill national commitments to save the great cats. It’s everyone’s task. Communities need incentives to share their land with such predators. Benefits need to be based on moral values as well as on economic ones. The jaguar is a representative of the sun, the protector of all that lives among indigenous societies of Latin America; the tiger in China was an emissary of heaven and in Hindu India a force for good; and Buddhism stresses respect, love, and compassion for all living beings. Conservation is based on moral values, not scientific ones, on beauty, ethics, and religion, without which it cannot sustain itself.

That last sentence could be part of a manifesto for reconciliation ecology, a reminder to us wildlife biologists of the broader context within which we must place our endeavors to conserve biodiversity.


Red Knot | a tiny bird whose migration boggles the mind


A flock of Red Knots at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS, via

Via Ecolog-L, I just came across this episode of the One Species at a Time podcast from the Encyclopedia of Life, which I have now added to my list of things to listen to when I do the dishes/laundry (typical podcast listening time for me!). The Red Knot is an astonishing little shorebird with breathtaking annual migration, reminiscent of the journey of the Marbled Godwit which I blogged about some years ago. The Godwit’s trans-Pacific flight, of course, is truly jaw-dropping, but this little Knot is amazing too, especially given how little it is in comparison!

Listen to the Podcast

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.


The red knot is a tiny shorebird that undertakes a mind-boggling migration from the tip of South America all the way to the Arctic Circle. One of the few stops on that marathon journey is the Delaware Bay, an estuary that offers a banquet for migrating birds. Here, for some 20,000 years, red knots have flocked by the thousands to fuel their journey. But humans may be writing a tragic ending to this extraordinary evolutionary success story, unless biologists armed with an unusual tool can win a race against time.

Photo Credit: Kevin Karlson

Download podcast script

< Back to main podcast page.


Happy birthday, Marie Curie!

Google reminds us that today is Marie Curie‘s 144th birthday!


Meanwhile, here’s another reminder, for women wanting to follow in Marie’s path:


Things have changed some since Curie’s time, but not as much as they should’ve, especially for women in science. “Just remember that if you want to do this stuff, you’re not alone.”