The problem with the general public perception of Environmentalism: a coin with two sides, and both of them misguided

In spite of the ever growing interest of the general public in environmentalism I can’t help but notice that the acceptance of its principles and theories (especially the dangers of man-made extinctions and climate change) even by self-described science enthusiasts and supporters (who are NOT scientists) is much lower than, let’s say, the acceptance of evolution. At first I found this kind of weird: most of these people, not being biologists, decided (and rightly so!) to trust scientists and experts about evolution, so why don’t they trust scientists and experts about conservation and global warming? The answer then came to my mind, and I think it’s a combination of at least two facts. First of all, environmentalism apparently implies some sort of responsability, which is something pople don’t like very much. Second and probably most important, it’s a sad truth that most people who define themselves environmentalists are, in fact, obnoxious, misinformed, dogmatic assholes whose main interest is in appearing “hip” and “different”, rather than truly act in support of environmental conservation. Their main activities seems to be shouting that humanity is evil and corrupted, and that Mother Nature is a so good and kind, and, most terrifying of all, they often seem to refuse many scientific positions on various subjects (energy, agriculture, etc…), which is of course horrifying, since science is our best tool to understand the environmental dangers we face and to try to find new solutions.

This being the situatution, I can partially understand and sympathize with rational people who don’t want to be associated with such morons. It’s painful for me to know that the public face of environmentalism is represented mainly by uneducated hippy wannabes. At the same time, however, people that antagonize environmentalism on this basis should understand this: the fact that an idea is venerated by many morons in bad faith who don’t really understand its principles doesn’t automatically mean that said idea is stupid. Environmentalism as a whole, or parts of it,  are supported by many (if not most) scientists and researchers around the world, because it makes sense from a scientific and self-preservation standpoint – after all, when you look closely, environmentalism is nothing other than the management and conservation of resources vital to mankind. Who the fuck would oppose that?

So we have these two widespread perceptions of environmentalism: we have the cultist-like dogmatic misinformed people who spread ignorance and damage the public image of the movement, and on the other side we have people who see them and fallaciously identify the empty slogans of hippies with what should be the real goals of environmentalism, and thus attack the movement as a whole. To both groups, I say: try to look at the science behind environmental challenges, before taking a position.

Myrmecos’ Alex Wild pays a visit to Italy

Hey, apparently a while ago Alex Wild of Myrmecos visited Parma, an Emilia-Romagna city not too distant from where I live! But what was he doing there? He was in collaboration with local researchers to start a project in which the local population (in this case, elementary school kids) would be directly involved into ant research, which is totally awesome. I was really envious when I read on Wild’s blog of similar projects that took place in America, because this kind of things both help researchers collect data on large territories and manages to sparkle more interest and understanding for science and biodiversity in non-scientists; since here in Italy there’s basically no real support for scientific research, I thought we would never start something like that, which would have been a pity because our nation, thanks to the enormous diversity of geographic and climate conditions, has the richest biodiversity in all Europe. Well, apparently (and fortunately) I was wrong, since this new initiative follows the american model: it consist in leaving open vials containing a bait (usually a piece of a cookie) in various places with different conditions (grass, concrete…), wait for local ants to enter them, then capture the insects. At this point, the citizen can attempt an identification, but more importently can record data on when, where, etc… the specimens where captured, then freeze the ants, pack them with the data and send them to experts, helping them to study the distribution and ecology of these amazingly important organisms. So, overall, that’s great news for italian biodiversity research. One minor note to Alex Wild’s otherwise excellent article: I kind of rolled my eyes reading “…the students went back inside to talk about what they had found and then, I assume, it being Parma, eat pasta and/or pizza for lunch…”. It’s a little bit weird. Yes, pizza and the pasta can be found everywhere in Italy, of course, but come on, you make me feel like this guy.

Condoms for Biodiversity

by Francesco Lami

7 billions and counting – we’re too many. Overpopulation and the constant need for resources are putting in danger all of Earth’s biodiversity (including us). As part of a campaign to sensibilize people about this fact, the Center for Biological Diversity is giving away free packages of Endangered Species Condoms, so people can fuck in style withouth fear of increasing human population. Hell yeah! (and using condoms not only would help save many species from overpopulation, it would also help to push HIV a little bit more towards extinction). The best is probably the Burying Beetle one, but the Snail Darter is cool too.

8.74 millions of species of Eukarya on this planet right now

by Francesco Lami

Slightly later than most other biology blogs (and while waiting for the other motherfucker on this site to start being productive), here’s the new study that estimates that the number of currently living species of Eukarya (organisms with cell nucleus and organelles – animals, plants, algae, fungi, protozoa…) is around 8.74 millions, which is quite impressive, especially considering that the number doesn’t include Bacteria and Archaea (prokaryotes). Mora and the others who ran the study noticed a quantitative relationship between the number of taxa (groups of organisms) and the number of lower taxa contained in each of them and so on, and thought that maybe there was the same relationship between these taxa and the number of species contained in them. It might be a false assumption, as the authors themselves pointed out, but from what we know now there’s no reason to think so (yet), and anyway it’s a pretty clever method. It couldn’t be applied to prokaryotes since the higher taxon approach is invalid for those little fuckers (they’re too variable, they evolve too fast, and there’s probably too many of them).

To the surprise of no one, of these 8.74 millions, 7.77 millions are animals, and that’s simply because a vast majority of animals are insects, which are one of the most successful and diverse groups of organisms to have ever existed. Plants have 298.000 species, fungi 611.000, protozoa 36.400, chromists (algae & co.) 27.500. It’s interesting to note that not only the animals, but the fungi too (which are, in fact, part of the same clade) are much more numerous than plants. An explanation I can think of is that autotrophs only have to fill the role of “producers”, while heterotrophs are “consumers”, and they can fill different levels and feed on different organisms, and thus they adapted for very different lifestyles.

Interesting is also the fact that the model predicts that “only” 2.2 millions of species out of these 8.74 millions live in the ocean. It might seem strange, since oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface. I’ve read a very interesting and reasonable explanation of this fact in the twenty-years-old-but-still-extremely-valid book The Diversity of Life by legendary myrmecologist (yeah, it sounds weird) Edward O. Wilson. The fact is that on land and, to a slightly lesser degree, in freshwater, travelling is much more difficult, and there are a lot of natural obstacles and barriers. This contributes to the isolation of groups of organisms, and isolation (and subsequent interruption of sexual exchange among populations) is one of the keys to speciation and diversity. In the ocean,there are far less natural barriers, and travelling is much easier thanks to currents, so it’s more difficult for populations to lose contact with each other and diverge. (I’d also like to add that while ocean is enormous, most of the marine biodiversity is localized near coastal regions, which cover a much smaller area).

Previous estimates of the number of species included 3 millions, 30 millions and 100 millions. Today, roughly 2 millions of species (Eukarya, Bacteria and Archaea) have been described. I’m not sure if we’ll ever be able to describe all of them and determinate if this new study was correct. The challenge seems very though, especially since nowadays, because of us, many species are lost forever even before their discovery.