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The Opinion Pages
April 29, 2012, 3:54 pm
Worth Watching: ‘African Men, Hollywood Stereotypes’
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Thanks to a Facebook post by Cameron Sinclair, the executive director of Architecture for Humanity and co-editor of “Design Like You Give a Damn,”
I found this fine effort to get beyond the Hollywood vision of the African man:
I encourage you to watch and share the short clip, created by the nonprofit group Mama Hope. There’s quite a contrast between the movie imagery and the identities of the young men featured in the video.
The tendency to focus on the grim side of any issue, or group, goes far beyond the movies, of course. In 2009, when I posted on the billion-teenager “youth bulge,” I first chose a photo of African child soldiers, then switched (publicly) to a photo of African school girls when some readers complained. Of course, there’s a fine line here, as one reader noted, complaining about the schoolgirl photo.
The bottom line, for me, is that there is a great opportunity for nonprofit groups, university communication and journalism programs and creative individuals to step in to the gap left by Hollywood and the media and find ways to tell the up side of the human story. This is one such attempt. What else is out there?
April 27, 2012, 5:20 pm
A Critique of the Broken-Record Message of ‘Green Traditionalists’
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Andrew Revkin Demonstrators at 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen.
Keith Kloor, building on a post on his blog, Collide-a-Scape, has an essay posted on Discover, titled “The Limits to Environmentalism,” that is well worth reading. Here’s the introduction and a link to the rest:
If you were cryogenically frozen in the early 1970s, like Woody Allen was in Sleeper​, and brought back to life today, you would obviously find much changed about the world.
Except environmentalism and its underlying precepts. That would be a familiar and quaint relic. You would wake up from your Rip Van Winkle period and everything around you would be different, except the green movement. It’s still anti-nuclear, anti-technology, anti-industrial civilization. It still talks in mushy metaphors from the Aquarius age, cooing over Mother Earth and the Balance of Nature. And most of all, environmentalists are still acting like Old Testament prophets, warning of a plague of environmental ills about to rain down on humanity.
For example, you may have heard that a bunch of scientists produced a landmark report that concludes the earth is destined for ecological collapse, unless global population and consumption rates are restrained. No, I’m not talking about the UK’s just-published Royal Society report, which, among other things, recommends that developed countries put a brake on economic growth. I’m talking about that other landmark report from 1972, the one that became a totem of the environmental movement. [Read the rest.]
April 26, 2012, 9:18 am
Making Information Matter in a Noisy Age
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
I was invited to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this week to outline my notion that it is possible, amid the reverberating noise and distraction, to use the Web and other emerging communication tools and networks to make the world a better place.
Here’s my talk, “Building the #Knowosphere: How new ways to share and shape ideas can help build durable progress on a finite planet”:
MIT Tech TV
Here’s more on this notion of Knowosphere​, which sounds like a new word but has roots in the early 20th century, and even as far back as Darwin.
I also encourage you to read “Too Big To Know.” The author, David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, says our task, in an age of networked intelligence, is to learn how to build “smart rooms.” Here’s a great talk by Weinberger and his engaging blog.
April 25, 2012, 2:15 pm
Study Points to Roles for Industry and Organics in Agriculture
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press​Harvesting wheat in Kansas​.
Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times​Organic blueberries in New Jersey.
A paper in this week’s issue of Nature reinforces the argument that a hybrid path in agriculture — incorporating both industrial-style production and organic practices where they make sense — gives the best chance of feeding some 9 billion people by midcentury with the fewest regrets.
The paper, “​Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture​,” is by a doctoral student, Verena Seufert, and the geography professor Navin Ramankutty, both of McGill University, and Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment of the University of Minnesota. They found that, over all, conventional farming methods produced 25 percent higher yields than organic techniques, but organic came close for certain crops in certain soils. The authors’ core conclusion?
[T]here are no simple ways to determine a clear ‘winner’ for all possible farming situations. However, instead of continuing the ideologically charged ‘organic versus conventional’ debate, we should systematically evaluate the costs and benefits of different management options. In the end, to achieve sustainable food security we will probably need many different techniques — including organic, conventional, and possible ‘hybrid’ systems — to produce more food at affordable prices, ensure livelihoods for farmers, and reduce the environmental costs of agriculture….
To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.
I caught up with Foley by e-mail, saying that the paper appeared to paint a picture in which cereals, particularly, benefit from fertilizer and the other inputs favored in large-scale farming, while specialty crops can offer smaller farming operations sustainable levels of income. Here’s his reaction:
Read more…
April 24, 2012, 2:54 pm
Discovery’s Soggy Logic on ‘Frozen Planet’
By ANDREW C. REVKIN

Here’s a question to ponder after reviewing the video of melting penguin ice sculptures above shot at the glitzy New York City celebration of the American production of “Frozen Planet.”
How can Discovery Communications, the same giant media company that has brought the world the one-sided, and popular, “Whale Wars,” say it excluded any substantial mention of human-driven climate change in its wildly popular “Frozen Planet” series on the basis of objectivity?
I’ve been in overload mode, so I just caught up with Brian Stelter’s remarkable piece in which the series producer, Vanessa Berlowitz​, offers a contorted explanation for the lack of focus on this issue. Read the relevant excerpt excerpt below, again considering some other Discovery offerings as you do so: Read more…
April 22, 2012, 7:30 am
Have a Good Earth Day
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Andrew C. Revkin A boy and a tree.
Happy Earth Day, everyone. I hope at least some moment for you holds the joy exhibited by my son Jack when he got to dance inside an ancient redwood. Share some such moments here.
April 20, 2012, 2:04 pm
An Albatross’s Flight from Extinction’s Edge
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer Sarah Gutowsky, A short-tailed albatross incubates an egg on its nest on Midway Atoll in 2010.
Early this week I was sent an encouraging update from a conservation group on the status in the Hawaiian Islands of the short-tailed albatross, a remarkable ocean-roaming bird that once numbered in the millions but, devastated by the feather trade and other impacts, nearly vanished early in the 20th century. Here’s an excerpt from the release, followed by some valuable context from the biologist (and frequent Dot Earth voice) Carl Safina, whose books include the marvelous “Eye of the Albatross​“:
From the American Bird Conservancy:
Maybe ten rare Short-tailed Albatrosses showing up at several Hawaiian Islands doesn’t count as a new population, but those sightings are still causing a buzz in the conservation and birding worlds.
“This is a bird that was once thought extinct and even now inhabits only a very small geographic area in Japan. The fact that it is now showing up in Hawai‘i in double-digit numbers around breeding season is huge news and potentially a major development in the efforts to protect this species from extinction,” said Dr. George Wallace, Vice President for Oceans and Islands at American Bird Conservancy, the nation’s leading bird conservation organization. Wallace said that three birds have been seen on Kure Atoll, five on Midway Island, one on Laysan Island, and one on Tern Island….
The uptick in U.S. sightings conincides with two successful Short-tailed Albatross breeding efforts, one in 2011 and one in 2012, both by the same pair of birds on Midway. These are the only known successful breeding attempts of the species in the US. Midway is located more than 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, and consists of a circular barrier reef and several sand islets managed as Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to the world’s largest colonies of Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, as well as millions of other seabirds.
The State of Hawai‘i and the Kure Atoll Conservancy have been engaged in an active campaign to rid the island of the invasive weed golden crownbeard so that it offers higher quality habitat for nesting seabirds. The weed overwhelms albatross nesting areas and grows so quickly that it can even prevent albatross chicks from fledging. Both Midway and Kure are part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, designated by President George W. Bush in 2006. [Read the rest.]
From Carl Safina:
The arrival of ten or so Short-tailed Albatrosses in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and two successful nestings, is a highly significant development. This species once numbered in the millions on breeding islands off Japan, but so many were killed for feathers and meat, they went extinct. Or so it appeared. For twenty years, despite searches, no one saw a Short-tailed Albatross. Then one foggy day in the 1940s, a worker at a weather station on the island where almost all the birds had lived and died decided to take a walk. On a hillside, he saw six large birds, like ghosts returned from the dead. Japanese scientist Hiroshi Hasegawa made it his life’s work to shepherd the birds to security, protecting nests and stabilizing hillsides. The population grew to over a thousand. One day on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Alaska, I was lucky enough to see one at close range. Fishermen worked with conservationists to devise methods to avoid hooking the exceptionally rare birds. Now the population is expanding to new islands. It’s one of the most significant recovery stories in nature in our time. Given a chance, life tries to find a way.
To see an example of what can come from giving wildlife a chance, I encourage you to read Christopher Pala‘s dispatch in this week’s Science Times section from a windswept point in Hawaii, just 30 miles from Waikiki, where the first predator-proof fence in the United States has been deployed. Here’s an excerpt:
The fine-mesh green fence zigzags about four-tenths of a mile, from the south coast to the north on Oahu’s westernmost spit of land. It is fitted with an overhang that lets rats climb out but not in. People enter through a two-door chamber, in which one door won’t open unless the other is closed.
What has resulted is a slow-motion explosion of life.
“The fence is doing its job,” said Eric VanderWerf​, a biologist who, with his wife, Lindsay C. Young, is studying populations of albatrosses and shearwaters on a grant from the Packard Foundation. “The cats and mongooses were killing 15 percent of the chicks every year, and now they’re all gone.” [Read the rest.]
April 19, 2012, 3:50 pm
DNA Study Finds Deeper Antiquity of Polar Bear Species
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard. A polar bear sprawls on Arctic sea ice.
A fascinating new paper makes a strong case, using new genetic clues, that polar bears have been around a lot longer, and thus endured more climate vagaries, than most previous estimates. The research is described in “​Nuclear Genomic Sequences Reveal that Polar Bears Are an Old and Distinct Bear Lineage​,” a paper being published on Friday in the journal Science.
The journal’s summary of the article makes the prime point: “Polar bears diverged from their closest relatives about 600,000 years ago, according to a new genetic analysis. The findings suggest the cold adapted species is about five times older than previously thought, and may have had more time to adapt to arctic conditions than recently assumed.”
You’ll see various interpretations. Those concerned about global warming (including at least one study author) are stressing that a longer evolutionary timeline implies the bears’ adaptation to climate change in the past was a slow process (meaning the speed of change now poses new threats). Those questioning the vulnerability of this species to warming will point to its successful survival through two previous warm intervals between ice ages as evidence the bear can deal with reduced ice and other big environmental shifts. Finally, there are basic questions about the robustness of the conclusions, which are based on a new line of genetic analysis not previously applied to polar bears. [April 20, 7:22 a.m. | Insert | I think this work bolsters the view of scientists who've been calling for a conservation strategy for polar bears and other ice-dependent species focused on areas of the Arctic where sea ice is projected to endure well into this greenhouse-heated era. Watch this presentation​.]
James Gorman of the science staff at The Times captures this complexity well in his news story:
The report comes to no conclusion about how sensitive the bears are to the current loss of the sea ice that they live on, and the evolutionary tale it presents can be read in different ways.
The findings challenge the idea that the bears adapted very quickly, but confirm that they have made it through warming periods and loss of sea ice before. It may have been touch and go for the bears, however, because the authors find evidence of evolutionary bottlenecks, probably during warm periods, when only small populations survived, even though warming was occurring much more slowly than it is now. [Read the rest.]
I had a few questions for the authors, and you can read some answers are below. I also sought reactions from some polar bear specialists and biologists focused on DNA clues to when the species split from its brown bear kin. Read on for their thoughts, as well. Read more…
April 19, 2012, 11:57 am
More on Global Warming from a Republican Meteorologist
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
The meteorologist and energy entrepreneur Paul Douglas is keeping up his valuable effort to depoliticize the science pointing to a growing human influence on the climate. Last month, I noted a post in which he described the scientific case posed by the unabated emissions of greenhouse gases. He described himself as a “Republican deeply concerned about the environmental sacrifices some are asking us to make to keep our economy powered-up, long-term.”
Now he’s going further, taking his argument to the commerce-oriented Bloomberg Businessweek Web site in a piece titled “Climate Change Has Nothing to Do With Al Gore” (the first of a two-part post, Douglas says). Here’s an excerpt and link: Read more…
April 18, 2012, 9:24 pm
NASA Contest Seeks Videos On Its Earth-Probing Efforts
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
NASA is holding a contest in which earthlings are invited to create short videos showing “what you find inspiring and important about the unique view and understanding of Earth provided by NASA science.” Here’s their video promoting the competition, which is open for entries (posted to YouTube) between Earth Day, Sunday, April 22, and May 31:
The details are explained by the space agency here. You can see some examples of NASA’s remarkable efforts to monitor and understand the home planet in related Dot Earth posts. A particular favorite of mine is the animated aurora borealis captured by Astronaut Donald R. Pettit from the International Space Station:
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By 2050 or so, the human population is expected to reach nine billion, essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources on a planet where, scientists say, humans are already shaping climate and the web of life. In Dot Earth, which recently moved from the news side of The Times to the Opinion section, Andrew C. Revkin examines efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits. Conceived in part with support from a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Dot Earth tracks relevant developments from suburbia to Siberia. The blog is an interactive exploration of trends and ideas with readers and experts.
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