If It Walks Like A Duck…

Dale Goodner

“It’s ugly.” The lady was having trouble describing a bird that was visiting her bird feeder, but she wanted me to identify it. I asked if she could be more specific. She added, “it’s the ugliest bird I’ve ever seen.”

So I asked what it was doing, and she said it would hide under an adjacent spruce, run over to the feeder and then return back to the spruce after feeding. I told her that sounded like bobwhite quail behavior. When I described the quail, she said, “That’s it!” Her opinion of the bird was not helpful, but what it did was definitive.

I’ve always thought bobwhite quail were rather attractive. Years ago, during Audubon bird counts, I would visit specific places to find them. Today they are no longer in those locations. Like so many other native species, quail have been in Central Illinois for millennia. Why are they disappearing now? What’s different today? We need look no farther than the nearest mirror. The answer involves us newcomers. Our impacts are many, including: agriculture; pesticides; pollution; hunting; and loss of habitat. Unfortunately, this is what you might call a global pattern.

Problems with the ecosystem tend to be invisible, and don’t get the same attention as problems with the eco-nomic system. Focusing on such worthy issues as jobs, economic growth, and health care… while ignoring environment, is like rearranging the deck furniture on the Titanic. There’s another problem that really shouldn’t be ignored, even if people don’t want to hear about eco-gloom and doom. Conservationist and writer, Aldo Leopold, put it well, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

There are three troublesome traits making our ecological problem an ugly duck: the number of us humans occupying Planet Earth; concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (a heat trapping greenhouse gas); and average global temperature… are going up and up and up together. I would prefer to think of these concurrent trends as just unrelated coincidence. But, in the immortal words of Poet, James Whitcomb Riley, “when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.” Let’s take a closer look at this problematic ‘bird.’

It walks like a duck… The 20th Century started in 1900 when the human population had reached 1.6 billion. It ended in 2000 with us humans having soared to new heights of 6.1 billion. This is nearly a 4-fold increase within a single century (in geologic time a century is a trifle). The result is ever growing demands on limited space for more food, water, fuel, housing, etc. Today we are already right on the verge of 7 billion, and the growth curve continues on a steep upward climb. It will take less than a dozen years to add yet another billion. Meanwhile the Earth isn’t getting any larger. In fact, it’s been said that to sustain our CURRENT needs would require three more planet Earths.

It swims like a duck… Since the industrial revolution, when we started burning serious amounts of coal, releasing long sequestered ancient carbon, there’s been a 40 percent increase in atmospheric carbon directly attributable to human activities. This brings the concentration of greenhouse gasses to a level not seen for nearly a million years… and amazingly we’ve done this in just the last couple of centuries. The rates continue to spiral upward, with emissions mainly from unlimited combustion of coal, oil, natural gas, and wood, which we use for energy and heat.

The atmosphere is not as huge as we tend to imagine. On a large desk-top globe, it’s comparable to the thin layer of varnish. A study recently published in Nature, suggested that from 2000 to 2050, a 1000 billion tons of CO2 may be emitted into the atmosphere. This sounds like a lot. Roughly speaking, today, we’re already a third of the way to this dubious 50 year goal.

It quacks like a duck… Along with this increase in population numbers and atmospheric greenhouse gasses, there is a coincident and steady increase in global temperatures. The eleven warmest years ever recorded have been within the last 13 years. The warming trend has had an impact. The 20th Century was a time of glacial melting. All over the planet, glaciers are retreating. In Glacier National Park, only a few glaciers remain, and soon there will be none. Coincident with this fact, sea level is steadily rising. Over the past hundred years, it has risen by over a millimeter each year. Currently the rise is between two and three millimeters per year.

Animal and plant populations are moving into new areas. Generally this is northward and up, following rising temperatures. The same conditions that cause glaciers to melt also make it possible for more southern, low elevation, or exotic species to move into areas that were previously too cold, upsetting the native ecosystems.

The planet is warming. The controversy has to do with whether it’s natural. Many well educated people choose to ignore… even criticize overwhelming and growing scientific evidence that we human critters are not only unraveling the tapestry of life, but, because of our energy “needs,” are unwittingly causing Earth’s climate to change.

I think we can call it a duck… We need to accept responsibility, find alternate sources of clean energy and start cleaning up our mess. It’s been said that we can’t afford to reduce carbon pollution, that we need to “drill baby drill.” Truth is, we can’t afford not to clear the air (and the water). Since posterity can’t be here to look out for their best interests, it’s up to us. We are creating the future by our actions now.

Extinction is not new, but today species are disappearing at a rate well over, a hundred times greater than what might be considered “normal.” It’s been called a species “smack-down.” In Earth’s geologic history, there have been five major episodes of mass extinction brought about by such cataclysmic events as wide spread volcanism or giant asteroid impact, which changed the climate. We are in the process of causing number six. As our population expands, we consume ever vaster portions of our world. Of the millions of species on Earth, we’ve only classified about 15 percent. And yet here we are “bulldozing our way into the unknown.”

It’s unlikely my phone caller will be seeing that “ugly” bird at her feeder again, unless we modify our ways. The National Audubon Society reports that the Northern Bobwhite quail population has already plummeted by 82 percent just over the past four decades. My search for birds this year has yielded just a few meadowlarks. Once a common spring migrant, their melodious song is disappearing. According to Audubon.org the meadowlark population has dropped by 72 percent since 1967.

And the list goes on. When I used to lead morning bird walks decades ago at the nature center… the April air would resonate with a cacophony of calls and songs of neo-tropical migratory birds (such as warblers, vireos, and flycatchers). It was a challenge focusing the participants on a specific bird song. Now the spring woods can be eerily quiet. We can still locate some very special birds in the spring forests of Central Illinois, but their numbers are dropping off.

Birds aren’t the only ‘canaries’ in our ‘coal mine.’ It was reported in March that blue-fin tuna numbers have plummeted by ninety percent since the 1960’s. With increasing demand, more fishermen, larger nets, and long-lines, the ocean fish populations are being hit hard. This is clearly unsustainable and the outlook for the ocean’s ecosystems is bleak. And yet many nations, such as Japan, are refusing to sign on to ocean fishing limitations, fearing it would impact their economy. But just think about that for a moment. A healthy economy depends upon a functioning ecosystem.

The words we use are part of the problem. Natural areas are called “undeveloped.” With many thousands of species in a complex web of life, this term is totally inappropriate. Our development efforts are, in reality, undevelopments. Forests are referred to merely as “resources” (a better word is “communities”). We don’t “kill” trees, we “harvest” them. This implies the trees are there for us to take with impunity, and also that we planted them. In reality, trees comprise less than three percent of the vascular plants in a forest, but their loss impacts a huge complex of species most of us have never heard of. Tuna is not “food,” it’s wildlife. Coal isn’t “fuel,” it’s a fossil. Our vocabulary has a bad case of ‘consumption.’

Syndicated columnist, Leonard Pitts, stated that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. In order to have reasonable discourse, we need to stick to established facts. The American Association for the Advancement of Science sums up the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community well, “The scientific evidence is clear,” the AAAS Board says in a new statement. “Global climate change caused by human activities…is a growing threat to society.”

To ignore this “duck” would be ugly indeed.

Dale Goodner

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