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.

Friday’s Featured Organism: Dryococelus australis

Dryococelus australis

Giant insects, hellish forgotten islands... What is this, Peter Jackson's King Kong?

Everyone seems to be talking about this story, and I can see why. Usually, I’m more for the protection of entire key ecosystems or group of organisms rather than single, extra-endangered species whose ecological niche is today pretty small and irrelevant, but I understand the importance that these species can have as symbols of environmental protection for common people. This story in particular seems to me really touching, although many people would probably consider Dryococelus australis, the “tree lobster” (actually a giant stick insect), an horrible animal that deserves to be extinct (and here lies the limit and the superficiality of many people’s environmentalism: protect it if it’s huge and famous, burn it if it’s not a vertebrate). This beautiful critter was wiped out by introduced rats on its native Lord Howe island, Australia, by 1930, and was thought to be lost forever. In 2001, however, the walking stick rose from the ashes: a dangerously small population of around 30 individuals was discovered living in one of the few bushes that grows on the hellish Ball’s Pyramid, a small volcano renmant in the middle of the Tasman sea, resembling a giant blade emerging from the depths of some lovecraftian underwater city. Those insects were the last of their kind, and they had survived for all that time on that forgotten rock. 4 animals were captured, only a couple survived, but it was enough: now there’s a relatively stable captive population, all descendants of those two insects, Adam and Eve, and currently there are plans to try to reintroduce the tree lobster to its native Lord Howe island, after more than 80 years. If Dryococelus australis went extinct, nobody would have noticed, and I don’t think there would have been any additional repercussions on the environment (maybe there were at the time it was first wiped out from Lord Howe, but I’m talking about new repercussions). It is however remarkable how this seemingly doomed bug, withouth the help of any environmental organization, scientist, or support from the general public, secretly clinged to life for more than 80 years on that forgotten rock, under a single bush, with a population of less than 30 individuals. Don’t you feel that such an incredible animal, such an incredible feat of durability against all the odds, deserves to live to see another day? Don’t you think it could be  a symbol of biodiversity protection just as good, and probably even better, than the usual tigers, pandas and sea turtles?

Friday’s Featured Organism: Lemna minor

Lemna minor

Mean and green.

Sometimes, in swamp zones, you happen to see what seems to be a perfectly flat grassland, but in fact it’s no grassland – it’s a body of water completely covered in Lemna minor, the Common Duckweed. A single root and one, two or three floating leaves less than 0.5 cm in lenght, for an organism evolved to reproduce and absorb resources extremely fast. And when I say fast, I mean it, because more than once I kept small containers full of freshwater life for a while to watch it under the microscope, and this species, starting as just a few specimens, always managed to cover the entire surface in just a few days, and I always had to remove the excess. Its secret is that, while it can reproduce sexually through flowers, it mainly reproduces by division (the individuals with more than one leaf  originate two or three one-leafed individuals).  It is rich in nutrients, and so it’s cultivate to be used as animal food, and it’s also been studied as a way to produce biofuel, but it needs to be harvested very often or its incredibly fast growth allows it to become a pest.

Face to Face: Salamandrina terdigitata

Salamandrina terdigitata

Notice the yellow-brown spot between the eyes, that earns this animal the name of “Spectacled Salamander”, and the brightly red underside (here barely visible), which can be shown to predators as a deterrent.

Here we are again documenting my encounters with wild animals! This photo was taken some years ago in my region, Emilia Romagna (I don’t remember exactly where – sorry). It was in a beautiful natural landscape, a forest on the Appennines, with a crystal clear stream. In the water there were Common Toads (Bufo bufo) mating: a huge female had already laid a long string of eggs, and the smaller male on her was fertilizing the new ones coming out. And then I saw it: into the water, a Salamandrina terdigitata, the Spectacled Salamander, a small and extremely beautiful species endemic of Italy (it’s even the symbol of the Unione Zoologica Italiana); as many amphibian species, it’s becoming increasingly rare – that was the only occasion, to date, in which I’ve seen it, and there were at least three of them in the small pond in which the toads where mating! It was a further proof of that place’s uniqueness – S. terdigitata is, in fact, an important indicator of environmental health. It was unfortunate that the presence of a large field nearby, perfect for picnic, attracted a lot of people in the area, and putting the animals at risk of stress (some kids that were starting to harass the toads with a stick were promptly stopped by my father). Even more annoying was a friend of us, who threw unexpectedly and nonchalantly an used tissue into the stream, edvidently not aware of the value of that place. I can only hope that that small wildlife sanctuary is still safe, and so the toads and the beautiful spectacled salamanders.

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.

Truth is charismatic too

Comic by “humon”, user of DeviantArt

By Francesco Lami

I post this strip made by an user of DeviantArt because it nails perfectly an extremely important concept: environmental conservation is not some kind of charity for some cute little defenseless creatures that need our help to survive. Envirinmental conservation is an act of self-conservation. We need clean water and air, food, medicines, a place to live, and without an healthy ecosystem we can kiss goodbye to all those things. I know that a lot of environmental organizations use the “charismatic megafauna” (big, widely known endangered animals) approach to earn donations because a lot of people is honestly convinced that “environmentalism” and “ecology” mean only “protection of an extremely limited number of very popular mammals and birds”, and I know that the aforementioned donations are then often used, as it should be, to protect entire ecosystems instead of just one species; but I think that we should try to use truth, and educate people about the real value of the biosphere: it’s not only incredibly beautiful, it’s VITAL. “Vital” in the sense of “necessary if you don’t want the human race to die out, bitch”.  And the most important organisms are often the least loved: insects, fungi, bacteria, worms, small vertebrates… Educating people about the real value of the environment, instead of just showing them only what they want to see (“OH! LOOK AT THE CUTE SEAL! LOOK AT THE CUTE SEAL! MAKE A DONATION FOR THE POOR LITTLE ORPHAN SEAL!) will earn us a lot more support, will show people to appreciate countless natural wonders that often are not even taken in consideration, and will help assure a brighter future for our terrible, awesome species.

And with this, I salute you, and go on holiday for a week. See ya later, bitches.