Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ecocentrism - what Aldo Leopold has to say

This blog post is going to be a bit more formal (I basically wrote a short essay for it), but bear with me - it's worth reading. Aldo Leopold is an important environmentalist and a great author (hence all the quotes). I suggest everyone read his book A Sand County Almanac, which I reference in this post.

Aldo Leopold, an environmentalist from the early decades of the 20th century, is the creator of the land ethic and the father of modern wildlife conservationism. In his highly influential book, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold develops his ideas about conservation, ones that are deeply tied to ecocentrism and the idea that all things - plants, animals, even rocks - are inherently good in themselves. In order to understand how Leopold believes humans have a duty to act in relation to their environment, we must first understand his beliefs surrounding the proper functioning of the earth and its ecosystems.

Leopold explains the functioning of ecosystems using the idea of a biotic pyramid as a model. He describes land as not merely soil but “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals" (Sand County Almanac, pg. 253). He uses the pyramid model because the sun’s energy, which fuels all living entities on the planet, “flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers” (Pg. 252). Beginning with the bottom layer of the soil, energy travels up through the levels of the pyramid, with each successive layer depending “on those below it for food and other services,” and in turn providing food and other services for those above it (Pg. 252). As the energy moves up the pyramid, each layer “decreases in numerical abundance” compared to the one below it; it is for this reason that there are billions more plants than there are predators (pg. 252).

This pyramid system, however, is not a linear one: each species is linked in numerous dependency relationships (referred to as food-chains) with countless other forms of nature. Thus, the pyramid is really a “tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves to be a highly organized structure. Its functioning depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts” (pg. 252). In the Earth’s energy circuit, “food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed… but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life” (pg. 253). Leopold explains that “the velocity and character of the upward flow of energy depend on the complex structure of the plant and animal community…” (Pg. 253). He defines structure a referring to the “characteristic numbers, as well as the characteristic kinds and functions, of the component species” (Pg. 253). Here we begin to see how human interference can interrupt the complicated balance of an ecosystem.

Leopold elucidates how such a complex but vital system can begin to unravel. “When a change occurs in part of the circuit,” he writes, “many other parts must adjust themselves to it” (Pg. 254). He clarifies that not all changes are bad (in fact, without evolution we would not have the incredible biodiversity to protect at all), but that those changes made by man tend to be larger in intensity, rapidity, and scope than anything nature can adjust to (at least without serious consequences to the health of the planet as it now exists). For that reason, Leopold develops a role for humans that is very different than the role of “leader” that man has tended to assign for himself.

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic changes the “role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. [The land ethic] implies respect for his fellow-members…” including soil, plants, and animals of all kinds (Pg. 240). Leopold informs us that we need to examine each question about decent land-use in “terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (pg. 262). Intuitively, nature represents that which is “good” under the land-ethic.

The principle tenet of the land ethic is conservation, the effort to understand and preserve the lands capacity for health and self-renewal. Leopold describes conservation as “a state of harmony between men and land,” though one we are slow to achieve (Pg. 243). Practicing conservation requires that man learn to manage his environment in a way that helps to support balance in the ecosystem. In order to best achieve this, land ethic advocates something referred to as “reading the land” which centers on the understanding of the interconnectivity of all life forms discussed above. Leopold acknowledges that this new role for humans creates a paradox: somehow man must be both a conqueror of the land and a biotic citizen. He argues that in order to fill both of these roles simultaneously that we must cultivate an appreciation for the intrinsic value of nature, one that is based in love, respect and admiration. It is my hope that one day (soon) we can all achieve this.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tourism - good or bad?!

Yesterday at work, I spent a lot of time finishing up the IWC mailings I talked about in my last post. The envelope stuffing wasn't terrible exciting but if it helps to protect the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary then it was worth it.

I also spent some time talking with journalists. One television station in Ukraine asked ASOC for pictures on human impact in Anarctica, so I gathered together all relevant pictures and emailed them to her. If you want to see some examples, check out the ASOC Flickr account (there is some beautiful photography on there).

Another conversation I had was with a reporter from TV3 in New Zealand (where I plan to study abroad next semester!) asking about tourism and the Ocean Nova, a tourist cruise ship that ran aground on February 17th (it was re-floated by the tide earlier today). Though there were no spills (i.e. no tears in the bottom of the ship from dragging on the rocks) and no injuries to anyone on-board, this incident is another example of why we need to start regulating tourism in the Antarctic. Every year, there are an increasing number of tourists going down to the region during only a small window of time (their summer, our winter...). The 2007-08 numbers are somewhere around 46,000. Also, due in part to less ice because of global warming, people are now able to access more remote places. This means more areas of the continent (and consequently, more animals and plants) could be damaged due to human interference.

It's hard to know where to draw the lines, though. It's great that people can visit Antarctica so they can appreciate its beauty, but we need to also prevent them from destroying it in the process. I'm going to do some research on the subject and on ASOC's take on tourism, and post next time with some well-thought-out feelings on the issue.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Internship

Since I haven't posted much on my role at ASOC up to this point, I thought I'd devote a short entry to the work that I've been doing.

A lot of what I'm working on right now is in preparation for Antarctica related meetings in 2009. Right now, I'm addressing letters to all IWC (International Whaling Commission) Commissioners to encourage them to develop a comprehensive Management Plan for a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary at the intersessional meeting on March 9-11. It's not the most exciting thing to be doing, but I know that all work at a non-profit (no matter how mundane) is important. For more on whales in the Southern Ocean, check out this fact sheet (produced by ASOC of course!).

I've also been working on my big ongoing project: creating documents, slideshows, videos, etc. to highlight the important work ASOC has done over the past 30 years. The work on this project involves reading old files, scanning in old files/pictures, and communicating with ASOC employees from around the world. I tried to upload a video I created with this post but blogger won't let me. I'll see if I can't mess around with it a bit and get it up next time I post.

Anyway, I'm going to go back to the letters but I promise I'll keep you updated on my ASOC work along with my research on environmental ethics.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ecocentric, Anthropocentric, Biocentric

Here are my beginning definitions of anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism. Later in the semester I will do a large post on each with readings that support each belief system.

Anthropocentrism is the idea that the earth and its resources exists for human consumption. People who hold this view believe that we ought to protect the earth for future generations. Anthropocentrism often focuses on fixing the problem of limited resources through the use of technology rather than a reduction in consumption.

Biocentrism views animals as important beings. Stereotypically, biocentrics are against hamrming other life forms for their own ends - many of them are vegitarians or vegans.

Ecocentrism holds that humans are only one part of the complicated system that is the earth. Ecocentrism believes tht everything has intrinsic value and emphasized the interconnectedness of all life.

Side Note:

The book I was reading, Green versus Gold, had a very different conception of ecocentric and anthropocentric ethics. The author, Carolyn Merchant, described three forms of ethics - egocentric, homocentric, and ecocentric. In the book, egocentric ethic was grounded in the idea that what is good for the individual is good for the society. However, with environmental issues, this is not the case, as we saw with Garret Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. The book describes homocentric (anthropocentric) ethic as grounded in society. Homocentrism is tied to utilitarianism and the idea that the right action should maximize the good for the greatest number of people. This also often ends badly - for example, building a dam that floods a valley may produce power for a large city, but it does so at the expense of the inhabitants (human and otherwise) of the area. The third ethic described by the book is ecocentric. This ethic holds that everything (plant life, animal life, rocks, dirt, air, etc.) has intrinsic value; that is, it is good in ITSELF, not only as a means to some end. Decisions based on an ecocentric ethic take into account the whole system to be affected by the decision and therefore are more environmentally sound.

Hope this helps to clear up some of the confusion... I'll expand on all of these definitions as I continue to read and learn more!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Few Readings

Yesterday I went to the AU Library and picked up a few books on environmental movements and environmental ethics. One of the books I selected, Green Versus Gold, had some great essays on various environmental movements on California. I decided to let the location of focus slide since most of the concepts discussed in the book are universal. Also, I really liked the title!

I selected a few readings from the last chapter (Chapter 13: Revisioning California: Contemporary Environmental Movements), and I'll discuss them under the essay titles below. These paragraphs will hopefully give a brief overview of three environmental movements, all of which I will revisit as the semester goes on.

"Raymond Dasmann and Peter Berg Advocate Bioregionalism, 1980" -
This essay discussed the concept of bioregionalism, something I wholeheartedly support. The idea behind bioregionalism is that if we have chosen to live in a particular area of the world, we must tailor our behaviors and consumption to that region in a way that will ensure long-term occupancy of the area. Tailoring our behaviors and consumption to the area requires that we work in cooperation with the geography, seasons, water cycles and other life forms that characterize the place. Too often, humans attempt to change the working order of a place through technology. People seem to expect that it should be possible to live in the same way everywhere on the planet. However, as we are beginning to see, living in this manner is destructive and unsustainable in the long run. Instead of working against the land, bioregionalism is all about working with (and understanding) the land on which you live.

"Bill Deval and George Sessions Explain Deep Ecology, 1982" -
Deep ecology emphasizes a more spiritual connection with nature. Practicing deep ecology involves cultivating ecological consciousness - the insight that everything (birds, trees, rocks, water, etc.) is connected. Deep ecologist also advocate experiencing nature - taking the time to stop and sigh... smell the roses (or less cliche, taking a hike and appreciating the silence of being alone in the woods).

"Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein on the Emergence of Ecofeminism, 1990" -
Ecofeminism was born out of the marriage of femism and environmentalism. Ecofeminists emphasize women's roles in the environmental movement and make the claim that, especially in the Third World, women are among those most affected by poor environmental conditions.

Later this week, I'll be back to explain the larger concepts of anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Chilean Sea Bass Part 2

Hi everyone, I'm back this week with a bit more on the Chilean Sea Bass. In this post I'm going to discuss more reasons why this fish should be a no-go when dining out....

-The Chilean Sea Bass is caught by longline fishing. Longlining is the process of fishing by which a boat drops a long line (usually from about 2 - 80 km) in the water. Attached to this central line are smaller lines, and attached to the smaller lines are baited hooks. After the line is left to soak for a time, the boat returns to reel in the catch. Longline fishing comes with the problem of bycatch - in Antarctica seabirds such as Petrels and Albatross will nab the bait as the line is being dropped into the water. These birds get ensnared in the hook and drown as the line sinks. Longline fishing operations also end up catching other species of fish. These other fish and birds end up wasted - killed without a purpose.

Many fishing boats catching Chilean Sea Bass are doing so illegally. They are disregarding the catch limits and endangering the species. All to make money. BUT - if consumers say no to Chilean Sea Bass, prices will drop and overfishing will become less and less attractive.

There are plenty of tasty fish out there. If you're unsure what's best to eat, check out this guide from the Blue Ocean Institute (an ASOC member!).