File spoon-archives/marxism-thaxis.archive/marxism-thaxis_1998/marxism-thaxis.9802, message 382


Date: Wed, 18 Feb 1998 19:28:15 +0000
Subject: Re: M-TH: Marine biodiversity and soil fertility


Friday August 15, 1997 Edition


Conversations With Outstanding Americans:
Jane Lubchenco

Brad Knickerbocker, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

STRAWBERRY HILL, ORE. -- It's early morning along the Oregon coast,
and Jane Lubchenco is doing what she loves most - mucking about in tide
pools.

Rubber-booted and sure-footed, she moves over the rocky
area, checking the marine plants and animals exposed during
low tide, noting the harbor seals loitering on rocks just
offshore, greeting the graduate students she oversees at
Oregon State University in Corvallis.

"This is one of the most lovely places in the world to work,"
she says.

As a Distinguished Professor of Zoology and a world-class
researcher, Dr. Lubchenco has been documenting marine life
along the coast here for more than 15 years.

It's sophisticated science, sometimes involving helicopters,
remote sensors, and satellites. But she also totes a plastic
bucket labeled "Bob's Secret Sauce" (formerly used at a
fast-food joint) to carry the more mundane tools of her
trade. A screw driver to pry starfish off rocks. The turkey
baster for slurping water out of sea anemones. "Tuffy" pot
scrapers, which, fixed to rocks, attract mussels for study.

It seems idyllic and timeless, a place where native Americans spent time
hundreds of years ago, leaving behind piles of broken shells still visible along
the bank.

But when Lubchenco talks about what's going on here and what it represents
in the bigger picture of life on Earth - climate change, the loss of biological
diversity, the spread of toxic wastes, human population expected to double
before the end of the next century - there is an urgency in her tone, a sense
that mankind's impact on the land and seas needs to change.

"We're changing things faster than we understand them," she says. "We're
changing the world in ways that it's never been changed before, at faster rates
and over larger scales, and we don't know the consequences. It's a massive
experiment, and we don't know the outcome.

"And we should not be blasť about the
results. There are going to be very big
surprises, and [they] are not likely to be
in our favor. And therefore, we should
be more cautious...."

In person, Jane Lubchenco is low-key
and a bit of a science nerd. (This
reporter struggles to keep up with
photosynthates, Pfiesteria piscicida, and
"a really nasty dinoflagellate.") But she
has taken a lead public role among
ecologists concerned about this
"massive experiment."

And increasingly she's being listened to.
By members of Congress, by fellow
scientists, by religious leaders. And
most recently by the White House,
where she was one of seven experts
summoned to a briefing on global
warming.

Still at mid-career, Lubchenco has
racked up an impressive resume.

Among other places, her work has
taken her to Central America, China,
and the Aegean Sea. Next month, she'll
be in the Black Sea.

[snip]

Seated on a rock among the tide pools
at a place called Strawberry Hill, she
says it's important to realize that
environmentalism means more than
preserving the postcard-like scene here
along the Oregon coast, reducing the
smog level in Mexico City, or limiting industrial logging in Indonesia. And seen
in its broadest sense, the environment - and how it's treated - is directly
connected to human health, the economy, social justice, and national security.

"If you asked most people how they depend on nature, they will focus on the
things that we get - the food, the fiber, medicines, genes," she says. "But most
people are unaware of the fact that ecosystems also provide services.... For
example, forests provide flood control. They absorb water. They keep the
water from just gushing downslope and causing floods.... Other services
include things like the provision of pollinators, the generation of fertile soil, the
purification of air and water."

In the spring 1997 issue of Issues in Ecology (the publication
of the Ecological Society of America), Lubchenco and other
scientists listed more services provided by nature:
detoxification and decomposition of wastes, dispersal of
seeds, cycling and movement of nutrients, control of most
agricultural pests, protection of shorelines from erosion,
protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays, and moderation of
weather extremes.

But the problem, she says, is that "the services by and large
are outside our economic valuation system. We don't buy
and sell and trade them. They're just there. We've always
taken them for granted."

Looking around at the hillsides in a region that has been
heavily logged, she says, "Right now, you gain a tremendous
amount if you clearcut these forests because you sell the
timber and then you can sell the land to develop it. There's nothing in that
accounting that says what the loss of the services are or that enables you to
evaluate the tradeoffs."

Recently, she notes, research sponsored by the National Science Foundation
concluded that the annual value of services provided by nature worldwide
averaged some $33 trillion - nearly twice the global gross national product of
$18 billion.

"Those numbers are real fuzzy," she acknowledges. "Nevertheless, everybody
that's done some calculation about the global value of ecosystem services has
come up with trillions of dollars.... It's just way, way up there."

For Lubchenco and other ecologists, much of the "massive experiment"
resulting in environmental changes around the world can be quantified.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (the prime "greenhouse gas" suspected of
causing global warming) has increased 30 percent since the Industrial
Revolution. Sixty-six percent of marine fisheries are overexploited or have
reached the limit of the exploitation.

Species are going extinct at least 10 times faster than in the millennia before
modern-day humans. Other species have become "biological invaders,"
introduced by such human activity as ballast water in ships or in the fur of
domestic animals to new areas where they degrade human health, cause
economic loss (as the zebra mussel in North America has done), or disrupt
ecosystems to the extent that native species go extinct.

Another example that Lubchenco sees in her own work as a marine biologist:
Human activity has doubled the amount of nitrogen that is "fixed" (combined
with carbon, hydrogen and/or oxygen so that it can be used by living
organisms).

   "Much of the nitrogen supplied by fertilizers into
   fields or golf courses or lawns is greatly excessive,"
   she says. "Most of that washes into rivers and
   streams.... We've got good documentation of vast
   increases in the amount of nitrogen in coastal areas.

   "And what we are seeing is an increase in harmful
   algal blooms, increases in the frequency and intensity
   of these things - some of which are red tides, some of
   which are brown tides, some of which are colorless -
   but many of which cause problems."

   Among such problems are large amounts of
   decomposing algae, which use up oxygen and thereby
   kill fish by the millions, and production of poisons
   that are absorbed by shellfish and can be harmful to
   humans.

(In Virginia last week, a federal judge fined a hog producer $12.6 million for
dumping waste into a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. Such wastes are tied to
algae blooms harmful to fish. It was also reported last week that the
Environmental Protection Agency this year has issued 2,200 warnings not to
eat certain kinds of freshwater fish from lakes and rivers in 47 states because
of pollution.)

"I guess I think of all the different things that are happening on Earth in a
hierarchical sense," she says. "And that the ultimate driver of anthropogenic
changes is first and foremost the explosive growth of the human population."

It's a subject she stressed during her presidential address at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle in
February: "In 50 years, twice as many people will need to be fed.

Although the exact slope of the increase is not known for certain, the direction
is clear." It was during this speech to some 5,000 scientists that she drew
together population, environment, and social equity.

Lubchenco acknowledges that real progress has been made in some areas,
such as the international agreement to reduce the use of chemicals damaging to
the earth's ozone layer. Some countries (including the US) have seen pollution
reduced. The United Nations-sponsored Earth Summit in 1992 and the UN's
conference on population in Cairo two years later saw serious proposals for
progress.

She is encouraged by such things as the large number of Americans who
recycle wastes, the public opinion polls consistently indicating widespread
concern about the environment, the rejection in Congress of proposals to
weaken environmental-protection laws.

"There's a real difference between what we need and what we want," she
says. "I think more and more people are changing their minds about that, and I
think that's definitely for the good."

But in many other ways, the toughest global environmental issues are getting
worse and in some cases at an accelerating rate. And beyond relatively easy
steps (like recycling) is the need for harder things like cutting the use of fossil
fuels.

Back along the Oregon coast, Lubchenco
talks about the values and attitudes that
need to be examined if such warnings are
to be heeded. "No one deliberately set out
to mess up the world," she says. "But what
most people don't appreciate is how messy
we've become, and it's happened very
quickly and a lot of the more serious things
are not that easy for people to see. And so
it's easy to think, 'Gee, it's not that bad.
Gee, there are a lot of naysayers, and they
just don't like things, and they're causing
trouble.' "

Traditionally, scientists are cautious - they
rely on facts to back up their assertions -
and they generally have been hesitant to
take a prominent role in promoting public
policy. "In my view, the role of science in
all of this is really to inform," says
Lubchenco. (And she adds, "You need to
have scientists who can better explain that
information in something other than
tech-nerd terms.")

But she also asserts that scientists should
not hesitate to spell out what they believe
to be the consequences of different policy
options (changes to laws affecting water
quality or air quality, for example).

Lubchenco has been called on to testify
before Congress on such things as the need
to protect endangered species. And in
recent years, she has been involved with
Religion, Science, and the Environment -
an international partnership of scientists
and religious leaders of all faiths that
organizes ecumenical gatherings focusing
on the environment.

In 1995, she took part in a symposium
(held aboard ship in the Aegean and
sponsored by the Orthodox Church) that
used the 1,900th anniversary of the writing
of the Book of Revelation to focus on the
Apocalypse and the environment.

One major interpretation voiced by
participants, she says, was that "the
environmental destruction that we're seeing
now is the Apocalypse, and whether it
turns into a time of destruction or a time of
renewal and recreation ... depends on
whether humans accept the God-given
responsibility to be better stewards and to
convert the current destruction into
something that is more in balance."

"The patriarchs announced at the end that
they were now recognizing a new category
of sin," she says, "that it would be as much
of a sin to pollute, to cause species to go
extinct, to degrade the environment as any
of their traditional ideas of sin. And they
were calling this 'sins against creation.' This
is pretty powerful."

Next month, Lubchenco will take a lead
role on a similar gathering in the Black Sea.
She finds more religious leaders
questioning a traditional theology which
confused "dominion" with "domination,"
resulting in environmental degradation.

"I see people genuinely interested in taking
responsibility for stewardship of the planet
in ways that I think are appropriate." She
describes herself as "spiritual," but "not
really a religious person," adding, "I'm
more than willing to be helpful in that." Of
her own beliefs, she says, "There's a part
of me that really connects at a nonintellectual level with much of the natural
world .... For whatever reason and in ways that I can't explain and probably
can't articulate, I do feel an emotional connection with the rest of creation,
even though I don't believe it was created, I believe it evolved." Sitting here
along the Pacific coast - "one of the most lovely places in the world to work" -
it's hard not to feel that same connection.






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