As a Christmas blog, we thought that we would do something different for the holiday season. Here is the first chapter of Escape from Bubbleworld: Seven Curves to Save the Earth, by Keith Skene, released in 2011. This chapter is a short story based on the real life events of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as part of the Birdman Cult. We wish you a very happy Christmas and a new year where you realize dreams.
Musings on a Rock Face
"Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are boundless sea and sky, infinite space and a great silence. The dweller there is ever listening for he knows not what, feeling unconsciously that he is in the antechamber to something yet more vast which is just beyond his ken.” – Katherine Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island, 1919
Evolution can be a very cruel thing, she reflected, as she looked down at the misshapen heap of flesh and bone lying at the bottom of the rocky crag. He’d lost his grip, and lay defeated, exhausted from days of dragging his heavy torso over a terrain completely unsuited to his design. Having said that, there were not, really, any habitats that this odd-looking beast could properly call home. For he represented a mishmash of ideas borrowed from many inspirations, none optimal for its task, and ruled over by a brain that spent more of its time consumed with the past rather than the future, and with competition and control, rather than with context and community. So many neurons, so little understanding!
Yet the broken body lying far below was a relative of hers. Their families were one, far in the distant past. Of course, all of life could trace its lineage to the sea originally, for it was in the oceans that life had begun, protected from the damaging radiation of the Sun, surrounded in water and bathed in nutrients. From the chaotic world of the amino acids, to the arrival of an ordered coding system, and from the creative power of bacterial gene-swapping syndicates through to the much more conservative domain of the Eukaryotes, the bulk of the journey had been made under water.
Dramatic changes had occurred in this watery realm. Organisms had turned their gaze to the Sun for energy, instead of relying on hydrothermal vents. The splitting of water to drive photosynthesis, releasing oxygen, was another huge event, in hindsight, which ushered in the protective ozone envelope around the Earth, thus opening access to the planet’s surface, while catastrophically poisoning many anaerobic organisms at the same time. Oxygen was the classic waste product, the first and greatest life-driven pollution event, and the liberator of a new direction for life all at the same time. One anaerobic prokaryote’s toxin is another aerobic prokaryote’s oxidative respiration.
Their joint lineage had survived five mass extinctions, and many more minor ones. Together they had acquired a nucleus, requisitioned a notochord, transformed their gills from feeding organs to breathing units and replaced cartilage with calcium. They had evolved a vertebral column and crawled onto land on four limbs. Together they had transitioned from amphibians to early reptiles, and together their ancestors developed the amniotic egg. They had solved the problems of air breathing in different ways, each with lungs, but, of course, the bird lung was structurally and functionally far superior to the mammalian lung.
Eventually they had gone their separate ways, subtly at first, then more dramatically. Yet because their history was shared for so long, functionally they remained very similar. Differences in form can mask a unity of purpose, the common ground lost in a fog of shape-shifting shadows. Both became bipedal. While one went for hairs, another went for feathers, and while one went for beaks, initially with teeth but later toothless, another continued to explore dentition. Yet both of them became warm-blooded, and both were crowned kings and queens of the terrestrial world.
The massive destruction at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-five million years ago, provided both of their lines with the opportunity to take centre stage, expanding and diversifying into the liberated ecological space cleared by this vast erasure of other lineages, particularly those reptiles, both flying and terrestrial. The dramatic, climatic disruption of the Late Eocene and the onset of the Great Drying at the end of the Miocene, bringing with it the expansion of the savannas and the disappearance of shallow coastal seas, had significant impacts upon both of their evolutionary directions.
So much shared history, and yet here on the rocks of Moto Nui, a kilometre south west of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), they stare at each other in the bloody end-game for this particular pair of distant relatives. One of her eggs is held in the grasp of his magnificent pentadactyl forelimb, with its ingenious opposable thumb that, together with his swollen cerebral cortex, represent his greatest gifts and his most deeply cutting flaws.
The ability to think in such an isolated way, to ignore all the pleading calls of the Biosphere that urge patience, compromise and non-intervention, and to single-mindedly set out on paths that inevitably lead to destruction, in combination with the hand to translate these thoughts into deeds, is a devastating combination. The hand can rock a cradle, but that same hand can set a spear on its deadly trajectory. This is the hand which strikes a slave, which comforts a child, which fells a forest, which plants a vineyard, which drains a wetland, which sketches a bauplan, and which poisons an entire planet.
This hand, so perfect in its engineering, so sensitive and tactile, so capable of consolation and so able to lift up the weary, has been wired into a control chamber, separated from the rest of the building, bridges burnt and all portals firmly shut. Humans have become like a city on a hill, whose decision-making is terminally compromised by its denial of its context, like some cancerous growth, whose success in replication and expansion seems to signify achievement and progress, yet whose existence poses a significant threat to the greater whole. It was no surprise that the kin of this wretched beast would one day claim that genes themselves were selfish.
The only selfish beings on this planet are those who have rejected their part in the scheme of things, who have denied their true identity, and who now suffer under the illusion that selfishness is a foundation stone for life. You cannot be selfish unless you consider yourself as separate from the rest, and this, sadly, is a condition unique to the creature, one of whom lies, bleeding below. Separation leads to selfishness, and selfishness leads to destabilization.
Even as the veil of death approaches, he cradles the fragile shell from the savage impact of the rocks that have ripped and crushed the rest of his body, placing the egg above his own welfare and survival. This unfortunate creature at last finds some peace, the pain numbed by a surge of enkephalins and endorphins, as his internal pharmacy prescribes a final dose of morphine mimics.
He allows himself a smile. The smooth ovoid trophy that he grasps allows him to release himself to the entropic universe, his battle over, his target achieved. He was, after all, the first one to find the egg of a Manutara bird on the islet of Moto Nui. And just before he fell, he had yelled across the one thousand metres of shark-infested sea, to the ceremonial site at the village of Orongo, perched high on the edge of the Rana Kao volcano on the main island, where most of the human population had gathered to see who would win the race.
It was the ultimate challenge of strength, agility and, it had to be said, luck, both in terms of evading the great white sharks during the twenty-five minute swim each way and in stumbling on an egg before anyone else. Some said that ancestral spirits would lead you to the egg. He had never really believed this. Of course, he had not voiced this heretical thought to anyone!
No, there was a slice of luck in the whole thing. Indeed the more he thought about it, as he often had, there was a slice of luck about almost everything in life. Mind you, he never had won the egg race. And he wasn’t feeling all that lucky in his present state. A dying voice in his head diffidently reminded him of this. Maybe the spirits were needed?
So for the last two weeks, having swum out with all the others searchers to this small remnant of the great volcanic event that, millions of years ago, had created this islet, and to where the birds now had returned on their annual migration, he’d set out each day in an attempt to be the first of his cohort to find that illusive prize, the egg of the Manutara. As he’d searched the rocky surface of this small islet, at first trying to allow the spirits to speak to him and guide him to the treasure, he reverted to a more logical, systematic search, covering the surface in a grid-like way.
And that’s how he’d found the little tern, sitting on her egg, in a shallow indent in the rock. Unlike many of the other birds who had nested on the grassy slope, this one had found a spot on the edge of the cliff face. The white ovoid jewel peeped from under the bird. It was neither the spirits nor luck that had taught him to look for the tell tale sign of the soft feathers scattered around the nest. The mother bird would rid herself of the fluffy down feathers on her underside in the area of her body that would be in physical contact with her eggs. It is known as the brood patch, allowing the heat of her blood vessels just under the skin to transfer more efficiently to the eggs.
And when you saw these feathers, you knew an egg was there. His father had told him this family secret, and, indeed, it had been passed down through his lineage for generations. In fact the observation had been first discovered by his great- great- grandfather, and had given his line the edge in many a hunt. The reputation of his family was such that they were always chosen to take part in the annual event.
The screams of the thousands of birds around him slowly faded. They had returned from the land of his ancestors, and affirmed the continuity of his lineage, reborn since that first primeval creation, returning each spring equinox to nest and lay their eggs, part of the greater picture of nature’s birth, death and resurrection.
For though he had been born into a place, in time and space, where his race had damaged nature, he knew, deep down, that he was part of a much more all-embracing dance, where identity was not found in him or his species alone, but rather in the entirety of nature, and in the creed of the Cosmos. The invisible hand, not of macro-economics, but of the wider universe, reached into each of its members, and ordered each as they should be. He finally understood his part in all of this, and the part of all of this in him.
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The results of the recent beaver re-introduction in Knapdale, Argyll, have just been released. I remember being interviewed by John Craven at the site for Countryfile in 2009 at the outset of the trial, and I have followed it with despair since then. While the report contained little of interest other than arguing that it attracted tourists and discouraged anglers, the biggest shock is that this very meaningless and ecologically foolish enterprise had the backing of Scotland’s leading zoology institution, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and a leading environmental guardian, Scottish Wildlife Trust, as well as 2 million pounds of funding that could have been much better spent saving the Scottish wildlife that is still clinging on to our shores and hills. Shocking because of the very basic biology that was ignored. While we can more easily forgive the amateur do-gooders around the Tay and in Devon who have illegally and irresponsibly released many beavers that now form a feral population of 150 individuals, ecologically educated members of these two institutes should really know better. Resitting Population Biology 101 is advised. There are three reasons why re-introducing beavers, and any other single organism to an existing ecosystem is insane, and a single reason why the ecologists in SWT and RZSS, as well as the Taysiders and Devonians, got it so badly wrong.
1. Philosophical reasons or The Garden of Eden Fantasy
What I also refer to as “Golden Age environmentalism”, the compulsive yet foundationless desire to recreate some habitat from the past, by “re-wilding” is rampant among conservationists. This is a very strange concept, given that you cannot go back in time. What is Eden, and when was it? 15000 years ago, for example, most of Britain was covered in ice. So should we kill everything but the snow algae and spread the country with liquid nitrogen to re-wild it back to this stage? It’s a bit like plastic surgery – it may make you look 20 years younger, but beneath it, you’re still the same age, and getting older by the day! Unfortunately, some of our leading environmental organizations practice this cosmetic approach to conservation. Scottish Natural Heritage, for example, appears to be playing a game of King Canute at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve, where they cut down birch and willow in an attempt to “freeze” the dune system.
We live in a changing world: communities have evolved away from what they were 400 years ago, when the beaver was last in Scotland, and from 800 years ago, when the beaver was in England. The industrial and agricultural revolutions, human population expansion, urbanization and climate change have made this a very different place. More essentially, its natural predators no longer exist here.
The European beaver is actually made up of 8 sub-species. The decision to move one of these, the Norwegian sub-species, to Scotland is extremely dubious. At the end of the last ice age, the most likely sub-species was the French one (Castor fiber gallicus), because the land bridge was to France, not to Norway. Norway was covered in ice just like Britain, and so the Mediterranean refuges were much more likely to form the source of our beavers. DNA analysis of beaver pelts from British beavers could be carried out to check this, but, surprisingly, this hasn’t been done.
A study in the journal Molecular Ecology by Walter Durka and his colleagues (leading experts) stressed that geographically nearest forms should be used, and that there was a huge danger related to re-wilding in terms of the future evolution of the beaver. In evolutionary terms, species start off as sub-species, and to intervene in this process by moving groups around the continent, we are potentially impacting on the future direction of beaver evolution.
The context of an organism is everything. Every species needs food and a predator for a natural balance to be achieved. Without the predator, the population will, always, spiral out of control without culling. In Germany, beaver culling must now occur every year following beaver re-introductions in the 1960s. But what is the point of bringing the beaver here just to be culled? There is a moral issue here. Beavers are advanced mammals, and so if our actions deliberately lead to us needing to cull, then this is not a positive approach. Culling is also not a simple process. By killing particular beavers, we will not necessarily replicate the natural force of predation (for example those that disperse most). This can lead to a genetically altered population, and thus to all sorts of evolutionary problems.
Beavers that wandered too far from Knapdale were tracked and, literally, driven back in taxis to the site, in order to convince neighbouring land owners that there would be no threat to their property. This is also extremely worrying. For example, after 2 years, juvenile beavers migrate from their natal site. They can travel up to 150 km. The reasons for this are to reduce population load at a particular habitat, and, even more importantly, to prevent inbreeding. If we do not allow these migrations to happen, inbreeding depression will occur, and this can lead to terrible deformities. Do we really want this? To avoid this, we would need to allow these migrations. If we do this, then there can be no control on the spread of these creatures, and they are likely to encounter roads, probably acting as a significant hazard to drivers at night.
As we have seen, re-wilding is not a sensible idea. Neither is the use of the beaver for tourism. First, they are basically nocturnal, and in a British summer, this will mean 10pm. Shortly after seeing them, it gets dark. So safety concerns will come into play. Tourists have to try to get back off the water or river bank in dark conditions. Secondly, the moral issue of disturbing a shy and reclusive animal must be considered. The beavers do not want to be seen, and ecological tourism will be very detrimental to them (as it is for most wildlife), stressing them, and suppressing their immune system, due to an increase in cortisol levels. This will increase their susceptibility to a range of diseases, potentially leading them to become disease vectors. This has been widely researched, for example with mountain gorilla tourism of the 1980s.
One beaver family destroys 300 young trees in a single winter. Tree regeneration is difficult enough with rabbits and deer already putting unacceptable pressure upon young saplings. However the beaver removes bark, which contains the main transport system for sugar, thus killing the tree. Grey squirrels also do this, and so in combination, this is an unacceptable problem.
To use the beaver as a means of terraforming (changing a habitat into one that works for us) is an extremely risky strategy. Living trees are far better water controls than dead trees in a beaver dam. The Harlequin ladybird was introduced to act as a predator on aphids, and now its population has run out of control in the UK and threatens many of our native ladybirds. The cane toad, introduced to Australia to kill insect pests of sugar cane, didn’t eat the pests, but instead ate many endangered insects, and has greatly damaged the other species. Biological control and biological engineering are never likely to work because the ecology is usually too complex to model and predict. It is like a car mechanic attempting brain surgery. In fact it is like a brain surgeon attempting brain surgery – the outcome is not secure.
So why did these ecologists get it so wrong? It is because reductionist thinking pervades modern science. Little boxes made out of ticky tacky (to quote Malvina Reynolds) that can be inserted wherever we want to insert them, building what we want. Nature doesn’t work like that. Ecosystems emerge, they are not built. If you don’t have the wolf, then you have a beaver population in exponential rise, with little to curb it other than self-induced habitat destruction. How foolish can you be not to see that nature is a system, not a Lego set? Quite clearly, you have to be as foolish as the two organizations running this shambolic waste of resources. But hey, it brings in tourists.
The collapsing value of a barrel of oil has been the most significant economic event of the year. From a high of US$112 per barrel in June 2014, we now sit on US$69.62 on 4th December, 2014. The chief executive of Russians largest oil company, Rosneft, Igor Sechin, predicts prices will continue to fall to less than US$60 per barrel. The CIO of Ayres Alliance Securities predicts the possibility of a sub-US$40 barrel.
This drop has very significant consequences for the environment. While prices remained high, the non-carbon energy sectors, such as wind, tide and solar, all of which are more expensive to produce at present than oil, could be seen as feasible, in terms of the government subsidies needed to cover costs involved in research, development and cost to the consumer. However as the gap increases between oil and non-carbon sources, increased subsidies are needed for alternative energy sources to remain even slightly competitive,. There have been many conspiracy theories related to the over-supply of oil on the market (resulting in the dip in price), and while not wanting to add another, this current slump delivers a death knell to any chance of a competitive alternative energy supply anytime soon, a plotline reminiscent of Cars II!
As the cost of running our cars declines (though this is delayed as usual as the oil companies rake in the profit, since fuel prices have declined only 10% while oil prices have declined by almost 50% in the same period), we will be less likely to cut back on the amount of driving we do. Indeed, cheaper oil will impact on many consumer choices, since the price of oil underpins the price of many highly polluting products. Cost is the most successful controller of consumer decision-making. Large increases in the cost of alcohol and cigarettes has seen decline in sales and improved health. Increased oil costs means less damage to the environment.
The option of utilizing public transport and rebuilding canals for commercial transport becomes less economically preferable. Meanwhile, the oil industry itself is threatened by low prices since exploration for more complex sources of oil becomes less financially feasible. A recent report points to the crisis facing Brazil because of the huge, one quarter of a trillion dollar investment it has made in oil and gas based on prices at their peak. They now face financial crisis at these new low prices. Closer to home, our own economy will suffer as nuclear plants currently being built will be far from cost effective, and the need to import cheaper gas from overseas may become a necessity. Further development of the North Sea resource will also be challenged. On the bright side for some, the cost of fracking in the UK, a process just beginning, may well be too expensive.
Ultimately cheap oil is good for heavy carbon-based industries such as manufacturing. However given the diminishing supplies in many countries, including the UK, with what little oil we have left we would rather sell it at a good price in order to be able to invest in replacement technologies. Cheap oil also discourages smaller nations with oil reserves from separating from larger nations.