Monthly Archives: July 2012

How would you like to sleep with the fishes?


How would you like to sleep here, asks the Maldives Rangali Islands resort

Would You Sleep Here?“, asks the caption beneath this astonishing photo I just came across on Facebook (via Linda Franzen Zelnio), adding,

“This suite at the Maldives Rangali Islands resort promises an unforgettable night below the Indian ocean, complete with champagne breakfast and aquatic entertainment!”

Oh yeah!! Doesn’t sound half bad, does it? Imagine falling asleep counting the little fish (hope there aren’t any big sharks up there…) and waking up with the sun filtering in through the blue sea… one can dream! Wouldn’t you love to accept the invitation, and sleep there, for one unforgettable night?

Sadly, the invitation may no longer be open, because this was a special (limited time?) honeymoon suite offer to mark the fancy hotel’s (part of the Conrad Hilton group) 5th anniversary, although the space is actually a restaurant where you can presumably still go and enjoy some seafood. Unless, of course, the hotel was really thinking ahead and using this as a market test to prepare for the inevitable. Maybe they’re converting all of their suites into aquaria!

Because, you see, there is this small problem with any long-term business plan in the Maldives. The entire country may soon be underwater what with sea levels rising and our leaders continuing to fiddle. The country’s president became a poster boy in the fight to convince the world’s leaders to do something about climate change, because his entire nation faces a real existential threat. He even held a cabinet meeting under water (although not in the above hotel suite/restaurant which is probably beyond the price range for most Maldivians) to highlight their plight. Then he got ousted in a coup, but continues to fight the good fight.

But maybe he’s been fighting the wrong fight. Perhaps, instead of trying to put villages on stilts, or move the country’s entire population to Australia, they really should invite the tropical resort industry to invest in putting the whole country under an aquarium dome like the above honeymoon suite! Think about it!

Well, not entire islands, perhaps (don’t be absurd, I hear you say), but how about at least the houses of all the people now wondering where they might have a long-term future? Tourism is a big part of the local economy after all, so why not make the most of your soon-to-be-entirely-underwater real estate? Why not make lemonade when facing all this rising saltwater that the rest of the world refuses to do anything about? Turn the country into Atlantis, the tourist resort!

One unforgettable night? Pshaw! How about spending the rest of your lifetime sleeping with the fishes underwater?

Some birds of an evening in Gamla Stan

Contemplating the waterGhost of a sparrowBlack-headed Gull in flightWater landingTreading waterFlying Common Gull

Urban gulls and people at the water's edgeCommon Gull, profileCommon GullThe house sparrow flits by again...Common Gull surveys the sceneCommon Gulls on the boardwalk

Nice perch for a city gullIndignity of an arbalist

Urban birding in Stockholm, a set on Flickr.

Went for an evening walk in Gamla Stan (Old Town), Stockholm yesterday, with my new Nikon D7000 and its companion 18-105 lens. Saw a few birds along the way. Got a lot more images of people and buildings, which will be part of their own set. I expect to keep adding to this particular set on Flickr throughout my stay in Stockholm this summer.

Reconciliation ecology and the soul of a university (a radio essay)

My reading of the following essay will be broadcast as part of the series “The Moral Is” (to which I have been contributing for a year now) on Valley Public Radio today, July 3, 2012, during the local morning program Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. At some point in the future, it will be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, here is the text of my essay (adapted from my open letter to President Welty in the wake of the recent deforestation on our campus) in its original form – it was condensed just a little bit to make it radio-worthy. I hope you find my voice is at least as suited as my face for radio…

Fall colors in the now deforested Lot J

A view of gorgeous fall colors in the urban forest on our campus that was cut down last month to create more parking spaces

Is a university more than a collection of buildings where classes are held so students can get their money’s worth of diplomas? To whom does a public university belong: the faculty and students who live and work there and make it their community, or administrators and politicians who control the fate of a campus with top-down decisions? Does a university have a soul, and if it does, how do we protect and nurture it during economically difficult times? Does a university have a responsibility to model, on its own campus, some of the solutions to the difficult challenges facing society?

I ponder these questions as a tenured faculty member at California State University, Fresno – also known by its new brand name as “Fresno State”. The adoption of that brand, with a logo that no one likes, is symbolic of how out-of-touch our upper administration is with much of the campus community. Campus leaders created a more visible and tragic symbol recently when they literally tore a chunk of life out of campus by chopping down a mature urban forest to expand parking. This was a massive failure from our university at multiple levels: failure to consult with the campus community before cutting down 200 mature trees; and lack of any broader vision for building a sustainable green campus as a model for urban development. Deforestation to expand parking on a campus recently added to Princeton Review’s list of Green Campuses seriously undermines Fresno State’s credibility. I am also deeply hurt because the deforestation destroyed a significant part of my outdoor research and teaching laboratory.

I study and teach Reconciliation Ecology, a multidisciplinary approach to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our overcrowded planet. I work with policy makers, planners, and citizens to find ways to soften our environmental impact while improving quality of life for humans. Our campus provides primary field study sites. Students do original research here, including in the now deforested parking lots. We document how these seemingly barren urban spaces support many wildlife species, including federally protected migratory birds; the Fox Squirrel, a campus mascot celebrated during Squirrel Week; Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon, and other birds of prey living on campus. Their habitats now stand bereft of the tree canopy that provided valuable resources. How do I teach reconciliation ecology if we cannot practice even a modicum of reconciliation on our own campus?

The need for more parking when we are curtailing enrollment is curious, and this approach shows a complete lack of ecological foresight. Was it really necessary to cut down 200 mature trees, which fix carbon, provide shade, habitat, and psychological benefits, to add 600 parking spots? When the whole world is looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and when most urban dwellers are increasingly disconnected with nature, must we really cut down an urban forest to encourage more driving?

The leaders who navigate our campus through extremely difficult financial times must not overlook the ramifications of decisions thrust upon an increasingly alienated and demoralized academic community. A little more respect for the views of faculty and students who care deeply about this university, a little more compassion towards the environment and other organisms who share our campus, and a little more ecological smarts to soften the hard edges of our campus’s physical and psychological footprint will go a long way towards making the difficult times ahead more bearable. It can also turn adversities into opportunities for genuine leadership in building a truly sustainable campus for the long-term future of this century-old university. After all, the university lies at the heart of both, our intellectual and environmental commons, and nurtures the soul of our entire community.

Of California Condors and The Curse of the Lead Bullet

California Condor #63 soaring above Pinnackes

I wanted to write about the ongoing plight of the California Condor (yes, again), in light of the new paper out this week reminding us that even our best efforts at bringing back species from the brink of extinction continue to flounder in the face of our stupidity in not addressing the root causes that push those species to that brink in the first place. The new paper, bearing the poignant title “Lead poisoning and the deceptive recovery of the critically endangered California Condor” has found that upto 88% of all California Condors now in the wild have detectable levels of lead in their bodies. Further, lead levels are high enough that some 20% of them need to be captured and treated for lead poisoning every year. And, by examining the stable isotopic ratios of the lead in the Condors’ bodies, the study concludes that the primary source is lead bullets used in hunting. This is how one of the most expensive (and in many ways successful) endangered species recovery projects in the world may ultimately fail. Basically, we’ve brought the condors back through captive breeding, but have done very little about cleaning up the toxins in their habitats that pushed them so close to extinction but several decades ago.

I was going to write a full post about this paper, but the wonderful Deborah Blum has spared me the effort with her excellent commentary over at Wired. Allow me therefore to simply point you to her post and go back to frantically getting ready for the first of my sabbatical journeys starting with a flight to Sweden this week.

Please read Deborah’s entire article before jumping to conclusions, because this is not an argument against hunting per se, but about a very specific type of toxic ammunition that causes serious health problems for a variety of wildlife that we all care about, as well as to people who depend on meat from wild game. We have to find a long-term solution or we will forever be in triage mode, treating both wildlife and people who get sick due to our own lack of foresight. Then again, as Deborah’s teenage son observes, perhaps we are too far gone, our minds too poisoned already, to figure this out in time:

It seems like it should be such an easy decision to reduce the amount of poison in our lives, to protect  an amazing species that appears to be disappearing on our watch. We should want to protect our environmental backyards and all the species – including ourselves – that live there. It’s baffling to me that this should be so difficult for us.  Of course, when I raised the question with my teenage son – who seems to regard my babyboom generation as blight on the planet – he pointed out that lead is a known neurotoxin, noted for its ability to depress cognitive abilities. “Your generation has probably eaten too much lead already,” he said. “We can’t expect you to be smart.”

via The Curse of the Lead Bullet | Wired Science |