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Towards Day 18 (Thurs, 11/5): Considering Extinction

Anne Dalke's picture

Caitlin setting the scene in Taylor F
Creighton on for next Tuesday
[Beatrice's report from last class?]

I. coursekeeping
* by 5 p.m. Fri,
your ninth 3-pp. web-event (a revision of your eighth!) on
the relationship between identity and environment in All Over Creation
do this as a new, separate post but preface it with a link to your first draft

* For Tuesday's class, please read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's "science-based fiction,"
The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future (we'll spend two days on this; read ix-52 for Tuesday).

By 5 p.m. Mon., ninth short posting on your initial reactions to Kolbert's history or Oreskes/Conway's sci-fi tale.

III. @ 7 p.m. tonight, in Carpenter 21, poet Camille Dungy will speak
"On writing questions when we are looking for answers"
as part of the Provost's Office "Earth at the Brink" programming. 
I'm dying to go but am driving to Pittsburgh instead!

Please go, take good notes and report back!
Her poem, "Characteristics of Life" makes an nice entre into Kolbert's book:

A fifth of animals without backbones could be at risk of extinction, say scientists.
-BBC Nature News

Ask me if I speak for the snail and I will tell you
I speak for the snail.
                          speak of underneathedness
and the welcome of mosses,
                                        of life that springs up,
little lives that pull back and wait for a moment.

I speak for the damselfly, water skeet, mollusk,
the caterpillar, the beetle, the spider, the ant.
                                                        I speak
from the time before spinelessness was frowned upon.

Ask me if I speak for the moon jelly. I will tell you
                        one thing today and another tomorrow
        and I will be as consistent as anything alive
on this earth.

              I move as the currents move, with the breezes.

What part of your nature drives you? You, in 

   your cubicle

ought to understand me. I filter and filter and filter 

   all day.

Ask me if I speak for the nautilus and I will be silent
as the nautilus shell on a shelf. I can be beautiful
and useless if that's all you know to ask of me.

Ask me what I know of longing and I will speak of 

        between meadows of night-blooming flowers.
                                                        I will speak
                        the impossible hope of the firefly.

                                                You with the candle
burning and only one chair at your table must 

        such wordless desire.

                         To say it is mindless is missing the point.

III.  for today,
we asked you to read the Prologue,
and three chapters (1, 5, 13) of The Sixth Extinction
this morning, get into your 3 groups (Aayzah, join #13)
to figure out how to teach your chapter to the class

on Tuesday we used a barometer to talk about activism/what changes people's minds...
how will you build a bridge from All Over Creation to The Sixth Extinction?
what connects the two? how does Kolbert's work
expand/challenge/complexify our focus so far...?
1) generate bullet points for your chapter
[select a scribe: one of you to  post these on Serendip right now]
once you've gotten clear about the content,
2) draw up a lesson plan to teach the material to the class:
how will you engage us in these ideas?

IV. get up and do that...!

Anne's notes from Elizabeth Kolbert's conversation with Dan Torday (11/10/14)
Dan’s intro:

journalist, science writer, intrepid reporter
one could easily lose track of the disciplines she mastered to write this book
“what matters is how people change the world”
Elizabeth’s talk:
how I came to write this book-->
article in National Geographic Kids: “frog hotel” was inspiration
backstory: very interested in amphibian crisis
difficult to write about extinction: the subject isn’t there
“the golden toad”-->
whole book an extended effort to deal w/ something that is not there
true of all writing: has some problem @ its center--
and how you approach that turns out to be the work
not just to be gotten over: that is the center of writing
Elizabeth reads a passage/Dan asks a question
Chapter 2, p. 32: “Dan: thank you; nicely read”
his ESem selected this: reportage, talking to scientists;
amazing history of science; and the personal--
plus the evolutionary history…
how to begin unpacking a history of this size?
the beginning is important: the lede in journalism determines all
this wasn’t a history of science, so Ch. 1 became Ch. 2
complexities about the history of life
didn’t follow a neat chronological order
zero background in science; first semester @ Yale
took a physics course w/ no preparation, was traumatized,
and never took another…
got into science through reporting
(eminent scientists explained basic science to me….)
speaks to urgency they feel re: getting out this message--
were very generous w/ their time…
privilege of being a reporter: to lead w/ what you don’t know
hesitancy to admit what we don’t know: a lot of mistakes get made that way
fun thing of being a reporter (as print journalism collapses—
another depressing story): get to go interesting places and ask questions,
never having to pretend you are knowledgeable…
Ch. 5, pp. 94-95: “for human imagining...Dob’s Linn…
journalists are magpies: we draw from all around
husband as first reader—“does it read? Do you keep reading?”
loving language
harder to write without the “I”—an impersonal perspective
hard to get an immediacy unless material is dramatic
want the facts to speak for themselves, but sometimes I appear…
Dan: talk about how cool and amazing your life is!
got to go to a lot of great places to write this book…
on the coral reef, p.  (“modeled on Hall-Spencer’s work…”)
trick of nature writing: the list
question my colleagues wanted answered:
how to spend time w/ this material and not get depressed?
irony is an over-used word
going to amazing places, seeing what was left—but still extraordinary/spectacular to me…
what is extinct is you don’t see; what you see are the marvels that still do--
one of the themes of the book: not depressing being out there: remarkable world
challenge of making the world you see available to your readers
Prologue, pp. 1-2:
big language of science…and the storytelling mode
it was never noticed: this is a homage to Rachel Carson,
“beginnings are apt to be shadowy,”
from The Sea Around Us (re: origins of the oceans);
w/ tone borrowed from Silent Spring’s opening “Fable for our Time”
hard time to begin the book, and read about how everyone else did it…
shift in tone will keep you awake…
* are you familiar with the “voluntary human extinction movement”?
humans have done enough destruction, so it’s
in the planet’s best interest for us not to reproduce
very, very legitimate idea, but I have 3 children/don’t adhere to that
* wherefrom the article about humans and Neanderthals interbreeding?
classic journalist tool: googled scientist who wrote this paper-->
illegimate son of a Nobel prize winner
challenge: each discipline had its own language
environmental books usually end w/ “this is how we are going to turn this around”—
but I knew it wasn’t possible to reverse all I’d described; I left it in a very ambiguous place/
not sure what the message should be…wanted to leave readers w/ lots of space to decide how they feel
can’t retain the drama of fiction: a problem that plagues non-fiction
how to travel and be married w/ kids? “marry very carefully”--
husband is home teaching, brought up our kids, primary parent
don’t subscribe to a balance: everyone has their own set of circumstances
no perfect solution; if someone says there is—what are they taking?
how justify using fossil fuel to travel-and-study climate change
difficult to be a journalist and not travel; and difficult to travel w/ CO2
wrote a book on climate change, and traveled a lot:
same basic dilemma: is this worth it?
trivial? I tried not to make any wasted trips…
we could go on and on…is it worth it?
anything I’d say is self-justifying…
what makes humans distinctive? Our ability to transmit knowledge over time and distance…
passing on knowledge…innovativeness a radical change from other creatures—
what makes us so dangerous: ability to change world faster than evolution can adapt…

Anne's Reading Notes from The Sixth Extinction:
Prologue: a shadowy beginning to the story of 13 chapters,
each tracking a species emblematic of mass extinction
to appreciate extraordinary moment in which we live
frogs, mastodons, penguins, ammonites, graptolites, ocean acidification,
coral reefs, tropical forests, forest fragment reserves, bats, rhinos, Neanderthals, ….
“In times of extreme stress, the whole concept of fitness…loses its meaning: how could a creature be adapted…for conditions it has never before encountered?...the rules of the survival game abruptly change”
“people process disruptive information…by forcing it into a familiar framework….data that did not fit commonly accepted assumptions would be discounted…crisis led to insight…the old framework gave way to a new one…the history of the science of extinction is one such paradigm shift…’long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic’…the pattern of extinction is the pattern of life….The Big Five: when the rules of the game suddenly flipped, with consequences that will last forever; there is no general theory of causes”
“we have already left an indelible record…one of the ways we’ve accomplished this is through our restlessness…humans have rearranged the earth’s biota…”
“ocean acidification…global warming’s equally evil twin’”
“latitudinal diversity gradient: variety of life most impoverished @ the poles and richest @ low attitudes”
“Birnam Wood scenario—tress start moving upslope”
“in ecology, rules are hard to come by. One of the few that’s universally accepted is the “species-area relationship,’ or SAR…the closest thing the discipline has to a periodic table”—used to estimate extinction risk
“In other kinds of human disturbances there were always spatial refuges. Climate affects everything…’a revolution on the surface of the earth’”
“over the long term, a warmer world would be more varied. In the short term, though…things look very different. Virtually every species that’s around today an be said to be cold-adapted.”
“we don’t call it extinction, we talk about it as ‘biotic attribution,’ a nice euphemism…starts to look apocalyptic”
“islands tend to be species-poor, or, to use the term of art, depauperate”
“bleeding species is known by the surprisingly sunny term ‘relaxation”
“life is random: smaller areas harbor smaller populations, more vulnerable to chance”
“what distinguished islands: recolonization is so difficult”
“the jungle teems, but in a manner mostly beyond the reach of the human senses”
“diversity tends to be self-reinforcing…a natural correlation to high species diversity is low population density, and that’s a recipe for speciation—isolation by distance…also a vulnerability”
“extinction takes time…the ‘extinction debt’”
“variations on the theme of loss”
“there’s a dark synergy between fragmentation and global warming”
“One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers—roads, clear-cuts, cities—that prevent them from doing so.”
“in the face of climate change…human activity has created an obstacle course for the dispersal of biodiversity
“a demonstration of the rainforest’s logic: species so good at doing ‘exactly what they do’ that they’re extremely sensitive to any change that makes their particular form of doing more difficult”
“the whole series of interactions depends on constancy…in a place where the rules of the game remain fixed”
“Without human help, long-distance travel is for most species difficult, bordering on impossible. This fact was, to Darwin, central. His theory of descent with modification demanded that each species arise at a single place of origin…Given a long enough time, even a sedentary organism…could…become widely dispersed. But it was the limits of dispersal that made things interesting. These accounted for life’s richness and, at the same time, for the patterns that could be discerned amid the variety….physical isolation had been transmuted into biological disparity.”
“One of the striking characteristics of the Anthropocene is the hash it’s made of the principles of geographic distribution….global trade and global travel…deny even the remotest islands their remoteness….”
“the movement of species around the world is sometimes compared to Russian roulette…two very different things can happen…The …that the new arrival doesn’t survive…the vast majority of potential invaders don’t make it. In the second option…the introduced organism…survives and givers rise to another generation. This is … known …as ‘establishment’….a certain number complete the third step in the evasion process, which is ‘spread’….estimated that out of every hundred potential introductions, somewhere between five and fifteen will succeed in establishing themselves. Of these…one will turn out to be the ‘bullet in the chamber.’ Why some introduced species are able to proliferate explosively is a matter of debate. One possibility is that for species, as for grifters, there are advantages to remaining on the move. A species that’s been transported…has left many of its rivals and predators behind. This shaking free of foes, which is really the shaking free of evolutionary history, is referred to as ‘enemy release.’
“…[what invasive species have done is] precisely what Homo sapiens has done all over the planet: succeeded extravagantly at the expense of other species.”
“With introduced pathogens, the situation is much the same…Such ‘novel interactions’…can be spectacularly deadly….presumably it’s the ‘novelty’…that accounts for deadliness…”
“From the standpoint of the world’s biota, global travel represents a radically new phenomenon and…a replay of the very old. The drifting apart of the continents…is now being reversed…humans are running geologic history backward and at high speed…a souped-up version of plate tectonics, minus the plates…we are, in effect, reassembling the world into one enormous supercontinent…the New Pangaea.”
“If you count people as an invasive species…’arguably the most successful invader in biological history’—the process goes back a hundred and twenty thousand years or so…when modern humans first migrated out of Africa….”
“The immediate effect of all this reshuffling is a rise in what might be called local diversity….For the same reasons …global diversity has dropped….variety eliminated…by bringing long-isolated plants and animals into contact….’the eventual state of the biological world will become…simpler—and poorer’….the loss implied by complete interconnectedness….If we look even farther ahead…the biological world will…become more complex again…”
“Very big animals are, of course, very big for a reasons….so large that no animal dares attack them…beyond predation. Such are the advantages of being oversize…the ‘too big to quail’ strategy—that it would seem, evolutionarily speaking, to be a pretty good gambit….”
“What happened to all these Brobdingnagian animals?....’We live in a zoologically impoverished word, from which all the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared,’ Alfred Russel Wallace observed. ‘And it is, no doubt, a much better world for us now they have gone. Yet is is surely a marvelous fact…this sudden dying out of so many large mammalia…over half the land surface of the globe.”
“’When the chronology of extinction is critically set against the chronology of human migrations….man’s arrival emerges as the only reasonable answer’ to the megafauna’s disappearance….when humans appeared, ‘the rules of the survival game’ changed….’a geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it’….The Anthropocene is usually said to have begun with the industrial revolution….but the megafauna extinction suggests otherwise….it’s not clear that man ever really did [live in harmony with nature].”
“’the leaky replacement’ hypothesis: before humans ‘replaced’ the Neanderthals, they had sex with them. The liaisons produced children, who helped to populate Europe, Asia, and the New World….all non-Africans…carry somewhere between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA….’they are not totally extinct—they live on a little bit in us.’”
“…kids routinely outscored the apes in tasks that involved reading social cues….’the main difference is ‘putting our heads together’…. chimps…don’t have this kind of collaborative project.’”
“It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also…some madness there….Faustian restlessness is one of the defining characteristics of modern humans….[possibly] ‘some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible….this little inversion on this chromosome…changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything.’”
“One of the many unintended consequences of the Anthropocene has been the pruning of our own family tree.”
“I’ve been trying to…trace an extinction event…in the broader context of life’s history… extremely resilient but not infinitely so…very long uneventful stretches and very, very occasionally ‘revolutions on the surface of the earth’…[with] highly varied causes: glaciation…global warming and changes in ocean chemistry…an asteroid impact…’one weedy species’….the one feature these disparate events have in common is...rate of change. When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out….”
“people change the world…this capacity is probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our capability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks…using signs and symbols to represent the natural world…pushed beyond the limits of that world….’Communication …allows humans to escape evolution.’”
“One possibility is that we, too, will eventually be undone by our ‘transformation of the ecological landscape…having freed ourselves from the constraints of evolution, humans nevertheless remain dependent on the earth’s biological and geochemical systems…disrupting those systems…we’re putting our own survival in danger….in life, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results….Paul Ehrlich: ‘In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.’”
“Another possibility…is that human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion…’as long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive’…. Right now we are deciding…which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed…it will be our most enduring legacy.”