Well I have to be thankful to Jonathan Franzen for one thing – he’s pushed me out of my blog blues. His essay in the New Yorker about why we can ignore climate change so misses all the basic, important points about what is going on in nature that here I am, clicking away again.
I haven’t blogged since my father died in December. My father was a novelist and an ad man, and he was always the first to comment on my blogs! So when I have sat down to write, his absence has become a big presence, and I have walked away from the keyboard.
Days of innocence – before disease wiped these out. Photo: Richard Morgenstein
Presence/absence is one of the key paradigms of conservation biology. Much of citizen science is about documenting what species live where, in what amounts and when, and this is “presence data.” With it we can track what’s happening on a given landscape, and help direct conservation. But presence is only half the picture.
Absence is much harder to document. One thing Jonathan Franzen doesn’t know about is how many birds he’s already not seeing because of climate change. He doesn’t understand that while yes, extinction can work via one big meteor strike and has in the past, what is going on now is like a slow blood-letting (ever-accelerating), in which populations are shrinking. He’s still seeing the presence and not comprehending the absence.
Franzen doesn’t understand that the physical system climate change describes is not separate from the biological system conservation addresses. The physical and the biological go together. As E.O. Wilson put it in a recent talk at U.C. Berkeley (#science+parks), we are currently at risk of losing both. Wilson asks how “later generations will somehow find a way to equilibrate the land, sea, and air in the biosphere on which we absolutely depend, in the absence of most of the biosphere that took 3.5 billion years to put together?” Species – plants and animals – create the biosphere.
Right now if Franzen were bird-watching along the California coast, he would have to turn his binoculars to the ground, upon which are piling hundreds of Cassin’s auklet carcasses. This little sea bird is starving to death, as are record numbers of marine mammals also washing up on shore. Cassin’s auklets rely on krill, which is brought to the surface of the water by seasonal cold water upwelling. Right now a big blob of warm water off the coast is preventing upwelling, interfering with storms that would kick up the cold water and also drop precipitation on our parched landscape. Dr. Jaime Jahnke of Point Blue Conservation Science tells me the warm blob could be part of a larger oceanic pattern we have yet to discern. But it could also be part of a global warming horror show.
Speaking of which, recently I sat on a panel in honor of a terrifying and beautiful series on ocean acidification published by the Seattle Times, at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. In “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn” reporter Craig Welch and photographer Steve Ringman tell a complicated story through multi-layered narratives, still photography, and video. KQED’s Charla Bear led the discussion. A large part of the audience were Knight-Risser journalism fellows, who were very interested not only in the subject of the series but wanted to know how to get mainstream media to cover these stories more often and with full, responsible information (as the New Yorker neglected to do — shouldn’t the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism investigate how this august publication failed to do the merest due diligence on Franzen’s wacko assertions about climate change?). Dwindling resources for major reporting are part of the problem, but there is also a seeming reluctance on the part of mainstream media to address global change on an appropriate scale.
I was seated next to the Carnegie Institution’s Dr. Ken Caldeira – as Welch put it, Caldeira is “the godfather of ocean acidification.” Ocean acidification is caused by the same thing that causes warming atmospheric temperatures – ratcheting CO2 levels. I asked Caldeira about sea star wasting and ocean acidification. In addition to the Cassin’s auklet and the marine mammals, the biggest marine die-off documented thus far is going on from Alaska to Baja. Sea stars, colloquially known as starfish, have virtually disappeared. Only they didn’t just disappear, they disintegrated, infected by a virus. Because of citizen science and professional monitoring efforts over decades, we know the virus has been present in the water long before it took out the sea stars. Scientists are on the case but have yet to determine what happened to turbo-charge the destructive virus. They do know that the wasting started after a period of warmer waters. They do know that higher CO2 levels in the oceans are warming its temperatures. I turned to Caldeira on the dais. “Why can’t we say ocean acidification is affecting the sea stars?” He said, “We can. Ocean acidification affects echinoderms.” But the whole story is complicated, right? Beginning with the complexity of the system, which is driven by both atmospheric and biological factors that cannot be reduced and separated.
So, my father is not there to read this blog. It seems impossible that this once very strong presence is now an absence. I know there are those who will say, “oh, he’s still reading your blog.” I don’t believe that. He’s gone. But I can’t believe that either. I guess I thought he would always be there. The thing is, I thought that as previous generations have been able to do, I could find consolation for my personal losses in nature. I still turn to nature, but increasingly, it’s not there.