Living energy

[photo:] A large diameter beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) within the South Branch Beech Grove RNA (Photo: Chequamegon-Nicolet 2010)

“The tree is a living being, it is alive, like us, and maybe that makes it more meaningful to write on than dead paper.  The living energy of the sap will continue to flow around these shared words.” — Rebecca Rolnick, Unearthed, Spring 2016

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Rolnick’s essay on “The Story Tree” in the just-released edition of the ESF literary journal Unearthed.  We do want to tell our stories.  We want, as she said, “something more permanent to pass on to our descendants,” those who follow.  Unearthed is one way to do so without scarring an unsuspecting American beech.  We are searching for other ways to tell our stories, too, such as the recent ESF participation in the Planet Forward summit in Washington, DC, videos cast to the outer reaches of Youtube, the Travis lectures, and scientific papers that nudge the direction of the fields we engage.  It is useful, too, I think, to view ESF itself as one particularly long-lived beech tree.  Each student, staff, faculty, and friend who joins our community leaves their mark on the College that is, like the story tree,  a living thing.  Every entering class brings energy that renews the institution as a whole yet is shaped by the accumulation of indelible marks left by those who came before.


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From Eocene to Obscene


Studies of climate change in the Eocene are instructive regarding the kinds of changes driven by atmospheric CO2 levels.  Those who take comfort in the fact that the climate has always changed — and it has — are clinging to false hope.  One of the lessons of most climate shifts in the past — even big ones: picture palm trees on the eastern Antarctic coastline and alligators in the Canadian Arctic — is that they were slow and gradual giving animal and plant life time to migrate or to adapt.  The obscenity of the current anthropogenic CO2 spike is that it is happening on a brief historical time scale as opposed to a protracted geologic time scale meaning that the flora and fauna have time to neither change latitudes nor adapt in place.

Eocene climate change study:


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Superhighway to zero emissions?

Electrical Wires_1

In a late January edition of The Conversation, NOAA scientist Christopher Clack shares results from the National Energy with Weather System (NEWS) simulator that suggest how high-voltage direct current lines, integrated into a transmission network rather than simply point to point delivery systems, could vastly improve the cost competitiveness of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, even in the absence of the breakthrough in battery technology everyone is anxious to see.

Acceptance of alternative energy sources by the public is closely tied to cost and the increased efficiency of direct current transmission opens exciting possibilities for increasing their price competitiveness.  A combination of such data-driven production and consumption patterns, parallel technological advances including both transmission and storage, and a bridging strategy from the status quo to something approaching meeting energy needs with zero emissions paints a very hopeful picture of the future.

Dr. Clack’s contribution to The Conversation and his recent article in Nature are linked below:



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Environment and Politics



Brian Black, professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State, has an interesting piece on the politicization of environmental issues in today’s The Conversation.  He describes the strong bipartisanship for the environment in the 1960s and 1970s, in the midst of tracking the history of environmentalism in the United States from Theodore Roosevelt to the present.  While environmental issues affect everyone and should be of equal concern to left and right, environmentalism has become a political football today with the losers, ultimately, being the environment and us all.  The punchline, the doorstep upon which he lays the ultimate blame for this polarization, is the voter.  Voters have driven this divide and voters will be required to close it.  This, in turn, translates into the urgent work of public science education.  Voters who understand how science works and the limits of knowledge, and who are given the latest and best information, are in the strongest position to correctly assess the situation and demand appropriate action from our politicians, regardless of their party affiliations.  This is a huge opportunity for our Center for A New American Environmentalism to redefine environmentalism in the public eye.  To tie it firmly and firstly to objective science.  To educate the public about what is and is not science, and how to sort knowledge from belief.  To encourage citizens to think deeply about what matters most and what is right in terms of our relationship to nature and natural resources.  And to engage society broadly in discussions of scientific issues so that environmental issues are again issues of humanity, not political parties.

Black article in The Conversation:





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Winning the Battle

Santa Cruz, Bolivia forest conversion between 1975 and 2003.  Source:  NASA.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia forest conversion between 1975 and 2003. Source: NASA.

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity. — E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

As in military campaigns, one can gain superiority technologically or the old fashioned way, with overwhelming numbers of troops.  In the battle Schumacher refers to, humanity is at a tipping point where it is bringing both an army measured in billions and equally overpowering modern technologies compared to the dynamics of the biosphere.  Humans now can, if not careful, literally win the battle and lose the war.

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Discourse without Borders

The symposium participants co-conspiring to plant the ESF flag on German soil.

The symposium participants co-conspiring to plant the ESF flag on German soil.

I have just returned from a fantastically stimulating week in Hannover, Germany, where I had the honor of presenting the keynote lecture at a symposium on “Labels, Catalogues, and Architectures:  The Art and Science of Modern Systematics.”  The event was held at the rebuilt Schloss Herrenhausen on the grounds of one of the grand European formal gardens.

Participants were remarkably diverse in their backgrounds, including taxon experts from major museums of several countries, historians of science, philosophers of science, sociologists, and artists.  From species concepts to implications of naming nature, novel ways of visualizing macroevolution, and searching for common structural patterns in nature, each talk challenged participants to look at the world through a radically different lens.

It was a chance to renew several old friendships with colleagues from Germany, Spain, the U.K. and U.S., and to create several new ones.  The intellectual stimulation at the intersection of such different fields was off the charts.  At times I was grappling to defend a previously held view and at others adopting an entirely new way of looking at an issue.  Both ways, it was a mind-stretching experience and fascinating social experiment.

Blurring traditional boundaries between disciplines sparks new and creative ways of viewing problems and just the kind of innovation we shall need to overcome complex environmental challenges.  Just as hybrid vigor emerges from novel gene combinations in a plant breeding experiment, new ideas are spawned in the fertile intellectual hybrid zones found only in the overlapping outer regions of disciplines.  Such creative exchanges of ideas hold great hope for problem solving.

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Hoarding Good Ideas

Researchers gather around a table full of herbarium sheets and botanical samples in the Botany Department Herbarium of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Herbarium photo, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Natural history collections around the world are suffering neglect. A group of leading curators, scientists and scholars in Italy recently made a plea to protect specimens that date from the birth of the idea of natural history collections themselves. These collections are a treasure trove of discovery. It is estimated that as many as 40% of the yet to be described flowering plants on earth may already be sitting on an herbarium sheet waiting for a botanist with sufficient knowledge of a genus and family to recognize, describe, classify, and name them. What is more tragic is all the species unknown to science that have not yet been collected at all and the decline in a serious effort to do so.

The recent piece in Nature magazine makes these points but does not address the greatest threat to natural history collections: an erosion in understanding why such collections matter, not only among the public but particularly among professional biologists. There is a dangerous complacency that technology — molecular sequencing and digital imaging in particular — are and will continue to make physical specimens in museums and herbaria less relevant. This is simply false and one of the great follies of our time.

Continue reading

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