Monthly Archives: December 2012

Inventing novel food webs for a brave new world

Professor Michael Rosenzweig, who coined the term Reconciliation Ecology, defines it thus in his book Win-Win Ecology:

Reconciliation Ecology is the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work or play.

It starts in part with the recognition of the fact that humans are and have been inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats for our own benefit, and such habitats where we live, work or play now overwhelm most of planet Earth. The key to conserving species diversity then is figuring out how to transform our invented habitats into ones where other species can also thrive – and this is where the science bit comes in. This blog (and my research) take inspiration from this to explore what science says about our ability to reconcile our civilization with the diversity of the rest of life on earth, and how other species respond to what we do.

I’m sure though, that Prof. Rosenzweig, who has studied species interactions and communities in wild and human-dominated places throughout his career, never imagined a food web quite like this one:

Vandalur Zoo Food Web“Clearly the lion is the king of the jungle!” –  observes Abi Tamim Vanak.

My friend Abi Tamim Vanak shared the above astonishing image of a billboard he found in Arignar Anna Zoological Park—locally known as Vandalur Zooin the Indian megacity of Chennai. Abi adds:

It’s just a random signboard at the Vandalur zoo along one of the walking trails. They should have also included bread in the food web, as thats what they feed the LTMs [Lion Tailed Macaques].

How about adding a baby in the chain leading up to the “eagle”?

Vandalur Zoo happens to be the first public zoo to open in post-colonial India, in 1955, and remains one of the premier zoos in a nation that wants to be a global leader in wildlife conservation, as in everything else. A nation that is proud of its national parks and sanctuaries which have managed to hold on to the last viable populations of tigers, and other charismatic megafauna, amid a bustling population of over 1.3 billion people. And a park that is officially run by the same Forest Department in charge of running all of the country’s famous protected areas.

Ponder all that as you try to unravel this food web. Imagine yourself as a 7-year-old, on a family or class trip to the famous zoo, staring up at this fantastic diagram depicting something you may never have heard about before: a food web! How much would you, could you, learn about the natural world in this place? The zoo—any zoo—is at the top of my 7-yo daughter’s list of places to visit in any new town, as I’m sure it is for many other children. Oh the things they can learn and take away from the famous Arignar Anna Zoological Park!

Vandalur Zoo is not too far from Pondicherry, the location of the fictional zoo that is the springboard of a fantastical tale you can now see in your local cinema multiplex in 3D glory, The Life of Pi. That tale starts in a similar zoo (with the cinematic one located in Taipei) but ends up (I’m told, because I never could read the novel past the first scenes set in that zoo) with a different sort of food web:

The hyena eats the zebra and the ape. Parker [the tiger] eats the hyena. That leaves Parker and Pi. If they are to survive, there must be a god.

While critics were perplexed, readers felt differently.

I too am perplexed—by the popularity of that tale, and how god enters into that food web—and now even more by the Vandalur zoo’s food web. But maybe there is a different lesson in both that I am missing.

If they are to survive, there must be a god.

When more and more of our children are growing up starved of access to nature in our cities, the zoo may be one of the few places to offer some sort of connection to the diversity of species who share our planet with us. Our re-engineering of earth’s habitats has already torn apart many a natural food web, as we continue to play god. In severing our connections with natural food webs, we have also lost our knowledge of natural history. In this brave new urban world, does it really matter what we call any of these species, or how we arrange them into fanciful food webs?

When computer generated 3D tigers take your breath away on giant screens.

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…and film students can fool the world’s top newspapers (and even some naturalists) with a CGI video of an eagle snatching up a baby in an urban park in Montreal,

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…what is a real species anymore, and how do we know what other species it may or may not eat?

Maybe I’m looking at this Reconciliation Ecology thing, with its goal to invent, establish, and maintain new habitats, all wrong…

If they are to survive, there must be a god. m

I don’t believe in an external supernatural god who may or may not manifest himself on lifeboats inhabited by curious food webs, but here on earth, If the diversity of species on this planet are to survive, we must be the gods, and we will arrange them as we please.


Talking trash on Valley Public Radio

I continue my contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio with another essay to be broadcast during this morning’s Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. The audio will later be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, I am posting the text of my essay (slightly expanded and linkified) below.

I wrote this essay during Thanksgiving weekend, that celebration of American cornucopia which is now increasingly marred by the ever-earlier manufactured rush of Christmas shopping, with Black Friday this year starting on Thursday, i.e., on Thanksgiving! As Jon Stewart later noted, Christmas is now eating other holidays, egged on by a marketing push in an economy wedded to ever-increasing consumption of goods, damn the environmental consequences.

Interestingly, a short while after I sent my essay in to the series editor, the Fresno City Council voted (closely, 4-3, after a heated debate) in favor of a measure pushed by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to outsource the city’s garbage collection to a private company, ostensibly to save money and get revenue from the company to balance the city budget. Ironically, a few days later, National Geographic lauded Fresno as “a city serious about recycling”, since it now keeps 73% of its trash out of landfills, making Fresno number 1 in the nation for recycling. Shortly after that, the garbage outsourcing measure passed a second round of voting by the same margin, so the city is one step closer to losing its nationally leading recycling program. I haven’t seen much discussion in the local media about what happens to the excellent recycling program, nor how the city plans to make sure that the private contractor will maintain quality of service. We will see how it all shakes out, I suppose, but the outlook is not very good, and the city leadership’s shortsightedness is disappointing if predictable.

All of this adds to the context within which I happened to write this essay, intending to make broader points about our garbage-spewing consumer culture. So here is my essay:

Can you imagine ever running out of garbage?

Maybe it has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics, the one about how entropy or the amount of disorder in a system will always increase. Or maybe it is this time of year, between Black Friday and Christmas / Boxing Day, when we are constantly exhorted to go out and buy things, things we may or may not need, but things we should want, because they are bright and shiny and cool, and offer momentary happiness in sharing gifts, or because this is how we are supposed to help businesses stay in the black, and help the economy! Accompanying all this jolly holiday consumption, of course, is a growing mound of garbage from all the packaging and the gift-wrapping, and the unwanted or rejected gifts that end up, eventually, in our landfills. It is hard to imagine us running out of garbage!

These days we are running out of many of the earth’s natural resources, ranging from oil and other fossil fuels, to drinking water, to even the fertility of our soils. In this time of scarcity, if there is one thing that we are in no danger of exhausting, surely it is our supply of garbage. So how can we run out of the stuff? And what would that even mean?

Well, as it happens, the country of Sweden is running low on garbage lately, so much so that they import it from neighboring Norway—and get paid for taking it off Norway’s hands! So efficient have the Swedes become at recycling and composting all of their household waste that only 4% of it ends up in landfills. As a result, they simply aren’t producing enough trash any more!

Wait! Not enough trash? Not enough for what?

For generating energy, of course!

According to a recent NPR story, Sweden runs one of the most successful waste-to-energy programs in the world, generating one-fifth of the nation’s district heating, and powering a quarter million homes. But now, because its citizens have become so conscientious about minding their own household waste, Sweden has to turn to other countries for garbage. Isn’t that a nicer problem to have than the litany of more depressing environmental challenges we face these days?

Why don’t we all do this? Kill two birds with one stone: reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and reduce our need for fossil fuels in the process.

Indeed, Fresno County is now entertaining proposals for a new garbage-fueled power plant. And, Fresno is already recognized as a national leader for its recycling programs. It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the modern landfill: the pioneering design of the Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill, a National Historic Landmark, set the standard for municipal waste management in 20th century America. Now Fresno can lead us again as the 21st century standard-bearer, by turning our trash into energy!

Dungbeetles Canthon simplex rolling a ball of dung.
Nature’s recycling crew at work, because in natural ecosystems, everything is recycled

In nature, there was never such a thing as garbage until humans came along, because any waste produced by one species is consumed by another in the circle of life. Our industrial civilization, paradoxically efficient and wasteful, broke the circle, and this may be the first time that a single species has generated too much waste for ecosystems to handle. 

We must close the circle again, and soon, before our planet is dead and covered in giant trash heaps.

Skyscraping towers of garbage on a desolate earth, as seen in Wall•E

A planet running short of garbage? Why, that’s how ours was not too long ago, and how it can be again if we put our ingenuity to solving the problems we have created.

For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti

How to make the elephant want to leave the room

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen you pack over a billion people into a relatively small subcontinent containing several globally important biodiversity hotspots, and many species of large, fierce, charismatic megafauna, the challenges of conserving all that biodiversity while meeting human needs are not simple. You find that solutions invented in other places, in simpler contexts, seldom work. Some simple seeming problems require complex solutions while other seemingly intractable problems may be solved in surprisingly simple ways. There are also, of course, other problems, larger political / social / economic ones, like managing global warming, that we are afraid to address even in the face of disaster, and find ourselves tiptoeing around as long as possible, the proverbial elephant in the room.

Landscape that dwarfs elephants“, image by Arati Rao

Sometimes though, the elephant in your metaphorical living room may be an actual real live Asian Elephant in the middle of a human landscape. Quite possibly rampaging through some farmer’s crop, high on musth gland secretions. Or camped out in the middle of that montane estate from which you get your morning cup of tea, its dark bulk rising “like a large boulder above the low tea bushes” as my friend Janaki Lenin described in an astonishing article in The Hindu a couple of days ago.

A crop-raiding elephant is most likely a solitary male, though, possibly in musth, but out in the open playing a high risk strategy to try and maximize his gain in that ancient evolutionary game of reproductive fitness. The risk of running around in the middle of human habitation is obvious, for humans are the most dangerous animals on the planet, liable to kill you for a variety of reasons. And elephants, with their social smarts, and their long memories, are particularly qualified to learn about these risks. Indeed, the females, in social groups with their sisters and their young ones, do tend to stay away from humans as much as possible.

Why then do the males stray into those crop fields, and tea estates, the occasional country distillery, and even suburbia, taking on these enormous risks? Because their reproductive success depends on access to females, for which they must compete with other males, and that contest usually goes to the biggest male in the ‘hood. So any young male elephant must try to become as big as possible to ensure his evolutionary fitness, for such are the pressures of sexual selection in this species. And for that, the males must eat. A lot.

When your natural habitat is fragmented, though, converted by humans for other purposes, and your traditional migratory pathways are cut off, where can a young male find enough food to grow big and strong? Not within the small “natural” areas humans have supposedly “protected” for them, especially when such areas are small and shrinking.

But hello, what have the humans done with the former elephant habitat? Why, they’ve converted them, from productive natural diverse forests and grasslands into even more productive monoculture grasslands (and other crops)! And the ‘grass’ is even sweeter and richer in energy ever since the clever humans figured out agriculture! What’s more, the humans then also harvest the best parts of the plants and pile it up in convenient storehouses in their villages and towns. So, if you are willing to take the risk, maybe even use your bulk to some advantage against the puny humans—as long as they don’t come back at you with guns and ammo—you have a potentially very high payoff from feeding in those crop fields and village barns.

This high-risk strategy can work—has worked—especially in the south Asian context because the human societies there have developed religious cultural traditions of worshipping elephants (and other animals) and generally leaving them alone, even if they are raiding precious crops. Some of these odd humans have been willing to make that offering to the elephant gods, and accept even the occasional human sacrifice as a routine cost of farming in elephant country. As the human population has grown, however, their patience with wildlife has also worn thin, and so we have one of the biggest challenges for wildlife conservationists: managing this recurring human-elephant conflict.

Given the cultural status of elephants, and their conservation status as an endangered species, managing these “rogue” crop-raiding elephants is a huge headache. One strategy commonly used is to simply capture the offending elephants, one at a time, and relocate them to where we think is suitable habitat for them. A new paper in PLoS One this week presents the first comprehensive study of this strategy to reduce human elephant conflict (HEC). Fernando and colleagues tracked a dozen such relocated elephants (some relocated more than once) using GPS-fitted radio-collars that could be monitored via satellite. What they found is not encouraging: 

All translocated elephants were released into national parks. Two were killed within the parks where they were released, while all the others left those parks. Translocated elephants showed variable responses: “homers” returned to the capture site, “wanderers” ranged widely, and “settlers” established home ranges in new areas soon after release. Translocation caused wider propagation and intensification of HEC, and increased elephant mortality. We conclude that translocation defeats both HEC mitigation and elephant conservation goals.

So basically, you create more problems than you solve by trying to relocate elephants. First, it is not easy to move the elephants far enough away (at least in Sri Lanka where the study was conducted) to keep them from trying to get back to their original home range. Second, you don’t simply solve the conflict, you merely displace it to another location, often escalating it to the point that the elephant ends up getting killed. It seems that more often than not, the poor elephants will, ultimately, always be at the losing end of that game. So the authors recommend abandoning the relocation strategy, and conclude that:

In the long term, attention needs to be shifted towards preventing the genesis of ‘problem-elephants’. Such a strategy requires eliminating elephant management and crop protection methods that promote elephant aggression and increase HEC, and implementing land-use plans that minimize crop raiding.

Meanwhile, Janaki, in her article published on the same day as the PLoS One paper, raises a different, intriguing possibility, based on another aspect of human relationships with elephants: domestication. While humans have been taming the landscape and transforming elephant habitats into farms for our own use, a handful of communities in India have also mastered the art of domesticating the elephants and using them for a variety of purposes, mostly as labor, but also as cultural and religious icons.

Janaki’s tale revolves around one particular attempt to use domestic elephant males (kumkis) to physically drive a “rogue” elephant out of a tea estate, and back into more suitable habitat. This elephant drive though, turned out to be a far less organized and much more chaotic affair than she had imagined. You really have to read her article all the way to its remarkable punchline though, to consider the possibility I am contemplating.

Go read it now before I spoil it for you in the next paragraph!

Janaki writes about trying to figure out how the drive was organized, and who called the plays (so to speak) in deciding when and how the kumkis charge and herd the wild elephant, and in what direction. What she discovered in trying to work out the chain of command is truly remarkable. First she was told that Forest Department Officials decide on the path for the drive. The higher officers appeared to pass the buck on to the forest guards on foot patrol. The guards weren’t organized enough to be in charge either, so then she was told it was the mahouts riding the kumkis who were really calling the shots. But then, the big kumki in that operation had a mind of his own, and they had to fire shots in the air to get him under control. So who really runs the drive?

The clash of the titans. Chasing the interloper. Photo: Janaki Lenin, in The Hindu

As the responsibility of the drive moved down the hierarchy, I couldn’t be sure if it indeed stopped with the mahouts. But there was no one else below them.

A couple of days later, I met a senior official of the first organisation. He said, “You know an amazing thing about these elephant drives: It’s not people who make the decisions; it’s the kumkis.

They hear and understand the infrasound communications between the wild elephants. And the kumkis decide the best course of action.”

Astonishing as it may seem, it actually makes sense if you think about the social lives of elephants a bit. Especially what we are learning in recent years about the long-distance communication networks they appear to maintain using infrasound. At elephant camps in various forests in India, domestic elephants are often left alone at night to wander the woods when they are not working—albeit with a heavy chain they must drag around so their mahouts can find them in the morning. It is common for these domestic elephants to go consort with wild ones, and even make babies with them! So it may well be that the kumki in Janaki’s tale actually knew the “rogue” wild elephant personally, and decided to take aggressive tactics on his own. Which may be why it makes sense to let the kumkis take the lead in these elephant drives.

This raises a remarkable possibility that may be beyond the imagination of mainstream wildlife managers and conservationists, especially in the western countries wedded to the metaphor of control over nature. Let the elephants, the domestic ones, decide how to herd the wild ones to avoid conflicts with humans! That, of course, in addition to changing our crop protection and land use strategies in ways that avoid conflict in the first place, as recommended by Fernando and colleagues in PLoS One. Thus may we build a real partnership with the elephants instead of ongoing conflict. For the domestic elephant knows humans better than the wild one, and may be best placed to properly communicate the real risk-assessment in these increasingly fraught HEC situations.

It may seem ironic, sad even, that we turn domestic elephants against their own kind, use them to control their wild cousins. Just as we have used them in forestry operations to cut down the trees from their own former habitats. It need not be so, however, if we actually pay closer attention to elephant behavior, both wild and domestic, and establish better communication with them so we can actually work together as partners in this. We manage our farms and people to reduce temptation for the wild males, while the kumkis help us keep them in line, away from people. 

Most of India’s forests are gone, and forestry operations no longer really rely on elephants to haul logs. Their other uses, as beasts of burden and war making, are equally obsolete. Apart from offering rides to tourists, the future prospects for these forest-camp elephants seem dim. Why not give them a new purpose, as intermediaries between humans and their wild cousins, helping us negotiate a dynamic truce, if not a lasting peace?

For our part, we must abandon our dominant metaphor of control (even couched as stewardship) over nature.



Fernando, P., Leimgruber, P., Prasad, T., & Pastorini, J. (2012). Problem-Elephant Translocation: Translocating the Problem and the Elephant? PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050917

On worshipping the Sun, late at night…

Even though I was brought up steeped in religious traditions—of the orthodox north Karnataka Madhwa Brahmin variety, no less—I grew out of them in college and have never really felt the need to seek any comfort in imagining a supernatural deity of any sort watching over me ever since. Of course, the broad and ambiguous philosophical traditions of Hinduism allow for atheists to remain part of the fold, because it doesn’t require firm belief in any particular (of its thousands of) deities, but rather emphasizes practice, or karma. In this, Hinduism may be closer to being a philosophy and culture more than an organized religion, unlike Bill O’Reilly’s latest delusions about Christianity. In recent years, especially after two decades of mostly living in the US, I have drifted away from much of the cultural practice as well, and find myself nonplussed by Hinduism as much as by any other of the world’s religious traditions. As to the dominant / mainstream (fundamentalist/supremacist) practitioners of these religious traditions… that’s another story.

These late night reflections on religion may seem rather odd on this blog, but they’re triggered in part by a nocturnal viewing of the sun (more on that below), and a recent essay by Indian environmental historian Ramachandra Guha where he tracks the rise of Hindutvawadi trolls on the internet, as part of the overall rise in Hindu supremacist (which may be a better term than fundamentalist, given Hinduism’s lack of singular fundamental texts or beliefs) movements in India. It was interesting to learn that my own upbringing was somewhat similar to Guha’s – except that my father in his later years joined the urban middle class throngs voting for the right-wing parties. I am glad, though, that in raising our own family now in America, we have managed to avoid what appears to be a common trajectory for many immigrant communities: a tracking back to a more rigid form of religious/cultural practices, often coupled with support for more conservative/religious politics in the US, all of which seems driven by the search for identity in a foreign land. I don’t go to the temple, for example, and have given up on attending various “cultural events” organized by local Hindu communities because I cannot stand their politics (which too often refract Indian communal identity politics in strange colors); or the trolls who show up to defend their interpretation of Hindutva in the manner Guha describes.

So how do I deal with that immigrant’s identity void? And how will I deal with questions about our culture and tradition that may come as my daughters grow up and face their own inevitable struggles with identity?

Science and secular humanism have served us well so far, and I hope they will provide strength to my girls when they come into their own as individuals embedded in a society that remains far too beholden to outdated religious ideas worldwide. I’m confident that we will find some ways to figure things our using these frameworks without having to resort to belief in some supernatural divinity.

But if that long-dead religious impulse ever gets resurrected (can’t imagine why, but the faithful keep telling me the day will come!), and I find myself in some spiritual void seeking an emotional crutch, I think I will probably take up Sun Worship. After all, the Sun actually exists, and is largely responsible for powering the evolution of life on Earth, and will keep life going here until it expands and swallows the planet in a distant but inevitable future – long, long, long after we are all gone, recycled back into the stardust that was forged in the interiors of other, older suns.

Here’s my prophet of choice, George Carlin, describing how, overnight, he became a Sun Worshipper (at around the 3:30 mark in this clip):

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Of course, Carlin jokes that his conversion wasn’t actually overnight because you can’t see the Sun at night!

How Carlin would have loved this video, then, which showed up on my computer screen late last night, making me suddenly feel a strong urge to worship the power of the Sun (and triggering this blog post):

[youtube dY69TuaZ0Pk]

Isn’t that truly awe-inspiringly spectacular? And to think that the Sun was tossing off that little flare at the same time as I was sitting in my living room late at night, peering at my laptop screen in my insomniac way, looking for inspiration to finish a bit of writing on a long-overdue research manuscript!

The video comes from the Helioviewer project, which allows one to visualize and explore the surface and inner heliosphere of the Sun from the comfort of one’s living room, using imagery data from NASA and the European Space Agency (the other ESA)! So not only do we not need to build any temples or churches to worship the Sun—who doesn’t give a shit about what we do anyway, because the Sun just IS—we don’t even need to wait until dawn to spend some quality time contemplating the face of this wondrous and powerful deity!

So that’s the other reason why I am up at night now, rambling on about religious impulses in this blog post!

Let me leave you with another awesome little video from just a couple of minutes ago:

[youtube fGA1CDKcCfo]

How can you not worship that?



Presenting the first fruit of a sabbatical – “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy”

As regular readers (and friends/followers on Facebook and Twitter) may be aware, I am currently on sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities, and am trying to make the most of this year to maximize my productivity in terms of research, catching up with paper writing, and science communication, here on the blog and elsewhere. The blogging has been rather light over the past few months as I have been traveling and getting involved in some fascinating collaborations which haven’t left me much time to write. I hope to make up for that over the coming weeks and months, especially now that I’ve moved my blog to be part of this Coyotes Network. Nice to be part of so many exciting and invigorating collaborations on all fronts! I was so ready for it after 8 years of the teaching and scholarship grind…

My sabbatical started with a lovely two months in Stockholm, working with my friend and colleague Thomas Elmqvist to put together the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO) for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A Professor of Ecology at the Stockholm Resilience Center, at Stockholm University, Thomas is also the chief scientific editor of this effort bringing together some 150 scientists and practitioners from the urban ecology disciplines (yes takes multiple disciplines to study the ecology of cities) to make the first comprehensive assessment of the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services in cities throughout our increasingly urbanized world. Here is Thomas explaining the mission and context of the CBO:

[vimeo 42603843]

It was quite an inspirational and productive way to begin my sabbatical – to go to a city that was so different in so many ways from Fresno, to explore a new country, to meet some fantastic new colleagues and friends from distant lands, and to engage in such a stimulating exercise as assessing the world’s urban ecosystems to help identify ways to better manage them for long-term sustainability. I may write more about these experiences and share photos from the trip as time allows.

By the end of my nearly two months there, we had finalized the text of the CBO’s first major document: the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy. This is our distillation of the current scientific understanding of urban ecosystems and biodiversity, and various ways cities can and are addressing the challenge of managing cities for sustainability. We synthesized insights and case-studies from the collective expertise of our 150-odd collaborators to produce a document that is intended to help ordinary citizens and urban planners, policy makers, and non-government practitioners grapple with the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization. As such, it is a relatively concise, well illustrated document written for non-expert readers – something for which my blogging had prepared me rather well, I realized. A more detailed Scientific Assessment, comprising of chapters covering different aspects of the urban ecological challenges, and detailed case-studies, written by the world’s leading experts in urban ecology, is currently being compiled and will be released sometime in spring 2013, as a print and an open-access e-book. Stay tuned for announcements about that.

Meanwhile, after spending a couple of weeks in Germany attending conferences, giving research talks, and catching up with some old friends, I wound up in India preparing for the official launch of the CBO at the 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the CBD. The first public presentation of the CBO was a keynote talk by Thomas at the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Mumbai on 10 October 2012. Then we moved to Hyderabad where the CBO was formally launched at last on 15 October 2012, at the Cities for Life Summit organized as part of COP 11. Here is Thomas (in the middle with the CBD Executive Secretary Mr. Braulio F. de Souza Dias on his left) showing it to the media at the launch press conference:

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That was when I finally got to see our work in print – quite nice colorful print too – and was pleasantly surprised to find myself listed among the 10 lead authors of the CBO! I honestly hadn’t really paid attention to the authorship of this report because it had been such a rich community exercise. In addition, since COP 11 was in India, and a large contingent of government officials, biodiversity scientists, and NGOs from all over India were in attendance that day, we simultaneously released another document: Urbanization, ecosystems, and biodiversity: Assessments of India and Bangalore. A smaller group of us (primarily Harini Nagendra, Maria Schewenius, and I) wrote this during a frenzied few weeks – and through an insane flurry of emails – after the CBO: Action & Policy had gone to the printers. Our initial print run of a 1000 copies of both the documents was exhausted within the hour, with journalists at the press conference fighting for the last copies of the India Assessment! I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for such an enthusiastic reception – but it has certainly reenergized the team working on the Scientific Assessment to complete the overall CBO mission.

A few hours ago, I had the opportunity to present an overview of the CBO at the December 2012 meeting of the Central Valley Café Scientifique in Fresno, to a very interested local audience of science enthusiasts and concerned citizens. Here are the slides from my presentation (adapted from Thomas’ keynote talk in Mumbai):

[slideshare id=15479286&doc=cbo-valleycafesci-dec2012-121204021824-phpapp02]

I was once again surprised, and gratified, by the keen interest and sharp questions and comments from the audience in the vigorous discussion that followed. But I really shouldn’t be surprised – after all, we are all city dwellers, so who among us wouldn’t be interested in learning about the state of our own home ecosystem? I hope the key messages (the CBO has 10 of them) we worked so hard to craft over the summer in the Stockholm archipelago, will percolate and spread beyond last night’s immediate audience and start to reach those involved in the governance of Fresno and Clovis (and other cities). I am now hoping to meet the mayors of both cities so I can present them with copies of the CBO: Action and Policy.

We urban ecologists have done our best to put together this report – now we must ensure that our messages translate into real world action in cities worldwide if we are to contain some of the alarming trends of urbanization’s impacts, and create better habitats for ourselves and for other species on an urban planet. Let me leave you with that thought, and with some links for further reading and action:

Watching the biosphere as it breathes…

…watching the biosphere as it gasps for breath. As we fill the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide than all the photosynthetic organisms on earth—who alone know how to make the molecules of life out of dead COand sunlight—can handle. Carbon that was fixed by their ancestors and ours long ago, then dead and buried deep underground until we figured out how to pull it out of the bowels of the earth, and burn it to build this industrial civilization of ours. Civilization which is pouring all that ancient fossilized carbon back into the atmosphere in quantities that are too much for all those green plants and planktons to handle. So that the CO2 keeps rising in the air, trapping heat, warming the planet, melting glaciers and polar ice, causing the sea to rise more angrily into our coastal cities, churning up storms ever more vigorous and destructive… like the earth lashing out at us for making its biosphere, its baby, slowly suffocate.

Watch the biosphere breathe, because, for the first time, you actually can. See the rise and fall of carbon dioxide in an annual rhythm that is quite soothing to watch. NASA’s JPL has just released a fascinating, mesmerizing video (download it in HD) showing us the global biosphere breathing:

Watching the last part of that video, with the seasonal pulsing of the green and yellow alternately suffusing the surface of the earth, reminds me of the many hours I spent at night watching my daughters sleep when they were babies. The gentle rise and fall of their little chests, the soothing soft sound of breath in, breath out. There is nothing quite as calming as watching a baby breathe as she sleeps. Or watching the entire biosphere breathe as it lives, throughout the year.

But this video is far from calming if you remember the first half. That graph of the annual pulse of CO2, climbing up in the winter, down in the summer, up in the winter, down in the summer, but lately arcing upwards overall, with a rising amount of CO2 in the air. Remember that graph? It is telling us we are adding too much CO2 for the biosphere to handle. A few years ago, we were still hoping to keep CO2 below 350ppm (parts per million). We urged our governments to do something, anything, to keep levels below 350ppm because that, our best science told us, is probably the safety limit for keeping the earth, the biosphere, in a state we know and love. Within a range of 275ppm to 350ppm, a domain which allowed our species to flourish, spread all the way across the biosphere. We tore up much of that living, breathing biosphere in the process, but it still kept on breathing in its seasonal rhythm. And we started adding more and more CO2 into the air, ripping it out of the earth and the biosphere, and pumping it out into the atmosphere, until it hit that upper limit of 350ppm. Go above that in a sustained manner, and we enter a new domain, where all bets are off, for the biosphere, and for our civilization. 350ppm is the safety word. But this past summer, we passed 400ppm for the first time in our recorded history. All bets are indeed off for us, it seems, because we are still not prepared to roll it back to below 350ppm. Governments continue to fiddle, for the 18th time, in Doha this week, amid growing confidence that they will, again, do nothing toward bringing us back into the climatic safe zone.

So watch the earth’s biosphere breathe like a baby, but know that it is also gasping as CO2 levels keep rising. It is up to us to bring those levels down. But first we will have to start by disturbing the blissful, willful sleep of our governments and institutions and corporations… and all our people…

… get them all to watch the biosphere as it breathes.