“We will open the gates of our city to those who deserve to enter, a city of smokestacks, pipe lines, orchards, markets and inviolate homes. With the sign of the dollar as our symbol, the sign of free trade and free minds, we will move to reclaim this country once more from the impotent savages who never discovered its nature, its meaning, its splendor.”-John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
This mind set was reinforced in the 20th century by the writings of Ayn Rand and continues in the 21st century. For example, following the financial crisis of 2008, her thought, perhaps the world’s most popular purveyor of the myth of the market, has seen something of a resurgence. There are influential political leaders, speaker of the House Paul Ryan being one of them, who brag about the fact that they grew up on a steady diet of Ayn Rand. In fact, sales of her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) went through the roof as American business leaders struggled to hang on to their vanishing dream. The dystopian story’s mysterious protagonist, John Galt, along with other captains of American industry, decide to go on strike to protest government regulation, bringing the country to a standstill. The core of the novel is Galt’s 70-page speech, wherein Rand’s entire philosophy is laid out. In it, she denounces the Christian morality of love of one’s neighbor, calling it a “morality of sacrifice,” (quite similar to the “slave morality” of Nietzsche) while championing a “morality of life” based upon egoism and the sovereignty of the individual rational mind over the human community and the raw materials of nature.
Former chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, who joined Rand’s circle in the early fifties, helped her do research for Atlas Shrugged. In early 2010, Greenspan was asked if the financial crisis signaled an indictment of Rand’s free-market ideology. His answer is instructive: “Not at all…There is no alternative to competitive markets if you want to have economic growth and higher standards of living in a democratic society…If you merely look at history since the Enlightenment…when all of those ideas surfaced and became applicable in public policy, we’ve had an explosion of economic growth, especially in developing countries, where hundreds of millions of people have been pulled out of extreme poverty and starvation…”
Greenspan and Ryan, and Rand are of course right about the explosion of economic growth resulting from global capitalism, but they appear blind to the eco-social costs of this growth. Half of the world’s 2.2 billion children currently live in poverty, almost a billion people lack access to safe water supplies, about 25 million acres of crop land are lost every year due to soil erosion, and 50% of the world’s non-human species may be extinct by the end of the 21st century. Further, global climate change resulting from “free market” industrial capitalism is threatening to make all these injustices far worse, in addition to other consequences.
As for past injustices, Rand’s celebration of the genocide of the native population (she calls them “impotent savages”) that once called Turtle Island home is a telling reminder that capitalism has always been wed to colonialism. In order to achieve perpetual growth, capitalist markets had to continually expand into untapped territories, there exploiting the labor and land of conquered peoples to turn a profit back at home. Today, what is exported, for profits, are not only the goods but the labor force. No wonder there are so many unhappy campers in the labor class who are now following a billionaire madman called Trump who has promised theme the moon in the well and is soon to be their president, and alas, my president too. From Rand’s and Ryan’s perspective, such exploitation was perfectly justified, since indigenous populations are not made up of free individuals, having no concept of rights or property ownership. Nor does Gaia or any of Her non-human creatures deserve the respect of properly rational individuals, since, following Lockean theories of property ownership, their value is inferior until produced for consumption in the human marketplace. The laws of the market seem to be opposed to the Laws of the Creator.
In short, the accumulation of wealth has come to replace Wisdom as the most important aspiration in human life. Money has become the source of all value and meaning. “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and money” says the wisdom of the Christian gospel. Not the beautification and celebration of Gaia and Her creatures in the Name of God, but the production and consumption of Her resources in the name of the dollar is now the normal, “the good” way of life. There is an ontological chasm separating questions of meaning and morality from those of mechanism and motion.
Let’s now take a brief look at pagan nature religions. Some see them as a protest against the modern separation of nature and the sacred, against the separation of matter from spirit, sometimes called “gnostic” religion. In nature religions, by contrast, nature is neither fallen nor a prison from which one needs to escape; it is perceived as both sacred and interconnected; it has intrinsic value apart from its utility as a resource for human beings. By interconnected they mean that our being is determined by our ecology, by the cultural environment shared with all other living beings. We are immersed in a web of life which is our true community. In contemporary politics this is the ideology or the underlying philosophy of the so called Green Parties. It is alleged that this awareness existed in ancient times, but has been all but forgotten within modernity.
The protest by ecosophists or nature religionists, supposedly has to do with the perceived disconnect of man from nature, leading to the de-sacralization of nature in thought and deed. Healing the rift, so the argument goes, will require a profound shift in our collective consciousness, a feat to be accomplished by the priests of this new religion. Some deep ecologists call it “the chthonic imperative” while some call it “the re-enhancement of the world,” and others call it “the realization of one’s ecological Self,” as distinguished from one’s “ego-self.” This reconnection with nature may take place through education, even academic education, or the ritual worship of Mother Earth, and other practices.
Some common attributes that can be listed as shared by most ancient and modern nature religions are: immanence or focus on this world and its embodied physical existence, focus on the immanent dimension of the sacred, its accessibility to all humans, the emphasis of experience over belief, on living in harmony in the natural world, on the teaching of spiritual truths found in natural cycles and nature processes, on the treatment of birth, death and sexuality as sacraments (the worship of Pan, the god of nature is another throwback), on relationship over mastery, on the tendency to ignore sacred texts and institutionalized religious hierarchies, on pantheism, on the affirmation of life in its totality, on Mother Earth as a goddess (Gaia), on deep ecology, on neo-animism and bio-regionalism, on eco-feminism, eco-psychology, eco-philosophy and eco-theology.
But despite all this, modern science continues to reorient humanity’s understanding of and relation to earth and the larger universe by way of positivism. Only science has the “enlightened” answers to the problems of modern life. What is lost sight of is that those problems quite often were produced by an the abuses and extremisms of science that says that progress is inevitable and what comes at the end is always the best. It it? Look around.
The discoveries of modern science have fundamentally altered our conception of how the universe evolved thus far and how it will evolve in the future. Left unasked by the scientific perspective is the age old question of why the universe was created and why it continues to unfold creatively. Some assume that the universe is eternal and that in itself settles the matter. The very question asked by Heidegger in Being and Time (why is there something rather than nothing?) is meaningless. To be sure, the issue of the eternity of the universe preoccupied the likes of Aristotle and his medieval admirers Averroes and Aquinas, and is far from resolved philosophically.
Be that as it may, the ancients of Athens and Jerusalem and later Meso-America, perceived an eternal intelligence or Wisdom to be at work shaping the course of the visible cosmos. They believed her fruit was better than the choicest gold or silver. The universe could not have created itself and given itself a goal and an end. They sought a way of life in concert with this universal cosmic intelligence (nous) responsible for creating and sustaining all temporal things. Further, they assumed that their portrayal of an ordered cosmos helped to create one, and their liturgies somehow maintained it.
Moderns, in contrast, have become alienated from their origin in and forgetful of their responsibility toward the Wisdom of creation. Science, in the modern age, has lost sight of Wisdom and the moral vision she provides. There has been an attempt to replace philosophy, which literally means love of wisdom, with positivism or the idolization of the pre-eminence of science. Science has wed itself to the instrumentalism of market-driven technology, with an ever-accumulating body of specialized knowledge and the earthshaking power it makes possible. Even when mistakes are acknowledged, they are imputed to lack of precision, not lack of wisdom. Man-made models of nature have come to obscure modern humanity’s vision of the glory of creation. The Socratic “knowledge is virtue” has been replaced by the Baconian “knowledge is power.”
Economics, now considered a positive science and therefore beyond the pay grade of philosophers and theologians, was once defined as the science of morality. It stands today, rather awkwardly, at the helm of our techno-capitalist civilization. We now have, not philosopher-priests, but capital-engineers who rule over the contemporary geopolitical arena. The question arises here: is economic “science” just the purveyor of an oppressive upper class ideology? The answer may be yes, given that ecology, is widely dismissed by many conservatives as a front for socialism. Many dismiss global warming as socialist propaganda. The sense of the purpose of life has been banished from reasoned political discourse and has been replaced by tweeting and texting. We now have a tweeter, incapable of rational, wise, moderate common sense discourse, as president of the US. Next we will see democracy going down the toilet and good old fascism returning together with racism and xenophobia. The signs are there.
The founding fathers, children of the Enlightenment, must surely be turning in their graves. One prophet of this state of affairs was the poet William Blake who acutely perceived this chasm between the Wisdom of Creation wisdom and a modern extreme rationalism that has become a monster devouring its makers as a sort of dragon or Frankenstein monster.
Let’s now look at ecology, and consequently ecosophy, is another fundamental scientific reorientation, a revolution in self and cultural understanding that matches, if not exceeds, in importance the sixteenth-century Copernican astronomical revolution. Unfortunately, the influence of ecological science on public policy has been superficial, leading only to slightly more efficient light bulbs and hybrid gas-electric automobiles. So long as ecology remains narrowly scientific in the secular sense, concerned with how and not why, it can penetrate no deeper into humanity’s dysfunctional cosmo-political orientation. “Home,” in the individualized techno-capitalist context, means now my home or your home; Gaia–our home–has receded into the neglected background of human life.
To be sure, this eco-social crisis of our age has its roots in the rupture between religion and science, as well as liberal arts and science; especially the science of economics. In order to reunite the how with the why, humanity must remember its proper relation to creation and its Creator. Ecosophy, I would suggest, is the fruit of such memory, the wisdom of home that, when watered, grows as a great tree from the soil of every earthly soul. Ecosophy brings economics back to its roots in moral science and theology, and enchants ecological science so as to renew humanity’s connection to a living creation. But it cannot be just a resurgence of the paganism of old. The Christian religion is an especially important well to explore in relation to the contemporary eco-social crisis, since modern Western science and technology were born out of its cultural matrix.
Secularity, in other words, can itself be understood by a Christian as an inevitable moment in the historical unfolding of Christ’s incarnation, just as the Renaissance was. The Renaissance cannot be understood as a mere resurgence of Greco-Roman civilization. Without historically situating modern Western civilization in the context of Christianity, secularity is all too easily misunderstood and identified with being modern and progressive, which eventually become inevitable and whose denial puts one at risk of being branded a medieval obscurantist.
As radical a break with the past as it may appear to be, Enlightenment secularism is evidently not best characterized as the rise of individual rationality above commonly held myths, nor as the firm grasp of scientific truths and technological powers that can replace religious delusions and magical incantations. The evidence of the inadequacy of such a triumphant characterization of modernity is legion: the isolated modern consumer is ruled over by perhaps the most deceitful, destructive, and oppressive myth of all, the myth of the market as above examined via Rand and Greenspan.
Secular philosophy’s failure to engage the market-driven metaphysics of techno-capitalism for fear of trespassing into theology has allowed the “science” of capitalist economics to upstage the Wisdom of creation. Any hope of finding orientation in these chaotic times depends upon a renaissance of the poetic science as expressed philosophically by a Giambattista Vico. The human, as the imago dei, is tasked with the renewal and maintenance of the creation covenant. Genesis 1:28 calls us not so much to “subdue” and to “dominate,” but “to harness or to bind” heaven and earth, to “maintain the bonds of creation.” As the children of Wisdom, we are called upon by our Creator to be co-creators with Her in all our deeds and all our speech. To be made in the image of God is to be God’s poet, the namer and storyteller of creation.
So there are definitely two competing visions, that of the life of the market versus that of the miracle of life. The life of the market is that of ruthless competition, the struggle for existence between selfish animals, who come from dust and to dust return. The miracle of life is that of spiritual communion, the joy of co-creation amongst loving angels. The former is a morality rooted in the shallow pleasures of private accumulation, while the latter calls humanity to participate in the renewal of all creation.
The miracle of life can be understood through an ecosophic perception of the sacramentality of creation as a Theilard de Chardin or Thomas Berry understood it. Consider Gaia’s relationship with the Sun, that most generous of celestial beings. The Sun sacrifices its own body to give away vast quantities of energy to Gaia without any expectation of return. Not a single quantum of energy could be transacted between living beings upon the surface of earth without the Sun’s primordial generosity. This is as true of the monetary transactions of the human economy as it is of the ecological transactions of soil and plants. Life is a gift, not an earning, a celebration of divine surplus, not a competition amidst material scarcity.
Contrary to Rand’s racist ideology, the native populations of pre-conquest America understood the meaning of the Sun’s splendor deeply enough to ritually organize their lives on earth to reflect the same patterns it was performing in heaven. Extravagant potlatch celebrations were held in honor of births, weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. Natives would gather together for great feasts gifted by wealthy families, and to sing and dance in honor of their divine ancestors. These ceremonies provide evidence that not barter, as classical economists assume, but gifting was the earliest form of exchange. Potlatch celebrations were outlawed by both Canadian and US governments in the late 19th century, and remained so until 1951. As modernity unfolded, traditional sacraments were increasingly considered to be culturally constructed symbolic performances, rather than theurgic events opening an economy between creature and Creator. Skepticism of inherited norms and revealed truths steadily increased as individuals turned to their own reason and values for guidance concerning ultimate matters.
Weber famously argued that it was the downplaying of communal ritual among the Protestant laity that first made possible the disenchantment of the world, the formation of the private modern subject, and the subsequent rise of techno-scientific capitalism. God, even if not quite dead, had all but fled the realms of space and time. Free of the sacred places and liturgical calendars of traditional sacramental religion, the modern individual no longer mirrored the celestial economy of angels, but remade the earth in his own fallen image.
Reintroducing theologically grounded and ecologically sensitive morality into the norms of the marketplace will require an initially painful reorientation of modern human life, the crucifixion of the old to make way for the new. In order to come into alignment with the Wisdom of creation so as to participate in God’s ongoing artistry, everything from our scientific understanding of life and energy to the time-anxiety underlying our socio-economic commitment to work must be re-imagined.
In order to imagine, and to co-create, the Great Economy of the Kingdom, it is first necessary to free ourselves from the anxieties of the world of working. This, I submit, is best outlined in Franciscan spirituality which advocates enjoying and praising nature rather than the exploitation and the rape of nature. Anxiety makes the problems of the market apparent to us, but uncovering their solution requires that we release ourselves from its world-distorting grip. Unlike the anti-religion of the market ruling over the world of working, wherein “time is money” as Ben Franklin famously quipped, Christianity calls us to observe the birds of the air and the lilies of the field living without toil: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” Time needs to be found to smell the roses.
Play, like the perception of Wisdom, opens up a non-ordinary reality, allowing us to transcend the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that are engaged with during a full 24-hour cycle of earth’s rotation (sleep, dreams, etc.), or the full span of a mortal life (birth, love, near death, death, spiritual vision, etc.). Work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains: why survive? If not to play, then for what? We are back to the question of the purpose of the universe.
Ritual performance, and the creative efflorescence it encourages, is at the existential core of our lives, and indeed is the beating heart at the center of creation. We might sometimes reflect and recall that the purpose of all our science, technology, industry, manufacturing, commerce, and finance is celebration, planetary celebration. That is what moves the stars through the heavens and the earth through its seasons, as Dante intuits at the end of his journey in The Divine Comedy. The final norm of judgment concerning the success or failure of our technologies is the extent to which they enable us to participate more fully in this grand festival.
The meaning of the world and the order of the cosmos must be enacted, or imaginally bodied forth. The human imagination, the Seal of creation, does not receive the world’s meaning ready-made, but must participate in its making: The meaning of earthly life soon dissolves unless we are willing to play, to make imaginally present what would not otherwise be so. Imagination is the soul’s temple, the holy of holies within which immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. It needs to be added to rationality, so that one can live a full human life. In this way, everyday is made holy, and all our work becomes a form of worship. Religion, science, art, and indeed, culture in general, are all born out of playfulness. Humans may not be the only creatures who play, but surely only we take play seriously enough to die for it. Perhaps Socrates had something like that in mind when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Contrary to this vision of creation rooted in play, biologists since Darwin have tended to understand evolution primarily as a vicious competitive “struggle for existence” amidst scarcity, where only the fittest survive. Energy is not compulsive work, but “Eternal Delight.” Nor is God’s ongoing creative artistry tyrannical or compulsive, but Genesis’ acts of creation must be read in concert with the wisdom of Proverbs and the passion of the Gospels. God did not create the world out of nothing, but beget it and suffered it with Wisdom. Lacking such an ecosophic perception of the true nature of reality has left modern humanity ignorant of why Gaia is the way She is. This ignorance hardly stopped us from learning how many of Her seemingly isolated parts worked, and how we might manipulate them for our own profit. Cunning power became our knowledge conceived as power.
As a St. Francis clearly perceived, as a mystic with no academic degrees, the Great Economy is in our midst and it does not reside in accumulated wealth and knowledge. It resides in Wisdom which is also all around. If the heart be reached, not through reason, but through imagination, then healing humanity’s eco-social wound must begin there, with the heart and with the imagination. Enlightenment conceptions of the “state of nature” must be entirely re-envisioned, e.g., Gaia’s values becoming the soil out of which the human soul imagines its own values. To be made in the image of God is not merely to be capable of thinking His plan after Him, but to be co-creator with Christ of the Kingdom, on earth, as it is in heaven.
In conclusion, I wish to suggest that ecosophy should not be a mere throw-back to pagan “nature worship” as a way to reconnect to the sacred (fine in itself), but it should go beyond; it should be the culmination of a genuine Christian Franciscan spirituality which remembers God’s creation and through nature finds the way to a new imaginative journey such as the one begun by Dante “in the middle of the journey of our lives” which ends, in the last line of the Divine Comedy, with “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Human Footprint Devastating Wildlife: An Article For Earth Day
Animals can be beautiful; they can be sleek, graceful, powerful, or just plain adorable, even cuddly. A field of wild flowers chanced upon can take your breath away. Wordsworth so moved by ‘a host of golden daffodils’ put pen to paper, and we are richer for his poem. And tourists in their thousands visit coral reefs for their stunning beauty and sea life. So it is distressing when scientists confirm our gut feelings about the human footprint on this natural environment.
Few people know that March 3 was World Wildlife Day, or this coming Sunday (April 22) is Earth Day — perhaps Trump sucking up all the media oxygen is responsible. The fact remains, world wildlife is under serious threat, and in ways we can’t even imagine — not forgetting the eventual disaster due to climate change, unless the world wakes up.
Not so long ago Science, the voice of AAAS America’s largest science body, published three papers describing the harmful, even devastating, impact of modern human presence.
The first is a mammoth global study spanning the four major continents and New Zealand. Authored by over one hundred scientists, it follows the movements of 57 mammalian species through the GPS-tracking of 803 individuals. It finds a strong negative effect of the human footprint on animal movement.
The scientists develop a human footprint index (HFI) comprising multiple aspects of human influence: built environment, croplands, pastures, nighttime lights, roads, waterways, railroads, population density, etc. On the animal side, they note and separate the effects of resource availability and body mass on vagility (migration distances) — larger species travel further as do carnivores.
They then compute animal movement as the distance between subsequent GPS locations over nine time scales ranging from one hour to 10 days. At each time scale and for each individual, they calculate the median (middle range) and longest distance movements. These procedures point to the thoroughness of their research.
Overall the findings indicate a decline in movement of mammals in high HFI areas ranging on average from one-half to one-third of their movement levels in areas without human presence. For example, the median displacement of carnivores over the 10 day period in high HFI areas was only about half when compared to zero impact regions. And the long distance movement over the same period in HFI areas was down to a third, averaging 6.6 km versus 21.5 km. The impact on feeding and breeding then is clearly severe.
The authors note the consequences for ecosystem function globally, the effects being critical for wildlife conservation and also in the spread of disease. In the latter aspect, the authors warn that “reduced vagility may go beyond ecosystem functioning to directly affect human well-being.” In their understated words it means dangers of animal extinction and human epidemics.
Most of us always assume all bees are good. Apparently not, as a couple of scientists explain. So as we reach for that honey jar … ; it all depends on where it came from. That is the contention of the second piece which assesses the impact of managed honey bees on wild bees and other pollinators.
Pointing to the rapid global growth in managed bee colonies and the attention devoted to them, the authors believe this focus reduces efforts to preserve wild pollinators so necessary for wild plants and flowers. In fact, high densities of such bees worsen the decline of these wild pollinators, and have also been linked to the spread of disease via shared wild flowers. Long term this is a worsening threat to wild plants and flowers, many facing extinction.
The authors identify managed honeybees and their honey production and pollination of commercial crops as an agricultural issue, not an ecological one. They advocate restriction of managed honey beehives in protected-ecological areas to reduce their harmful effects noting that half of all European wild bees are threatened with extinction.
The theme for Earth Day is End Plastic Pollution. If one ever wondered what can happen to a plastic bag discarded carelessly, the following research has a surprising and worrying answer.
This third Science article looks at plastic waste entering the oceans, often through catchment areas into rivers feeding into the ocean. It assesses the influence of such waste on disease in reef-building corals. The authors survey 159 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific, a region containing 55.5 percent of global reefs and 73 percent of the human population living within 50 km of a coast — about a quarter billion people.
An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste pollutes the oceans each year. A model based on a high end figure of 8 million estimates that more than a quarter of this is pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight in Asia. Of these the Yangtze alone dumps 1.5 million metric tons each year. The river waste is a result of mismanagement and clearly can be reduced given resources and better waste collection and disposal practices.
In the oceans, microbes hitch a ride on the plastic, living longer and increasing their chances of landing on an unfortunate host. The authors have measured plastic items per 100 square meters. The count can vary from a low of 0.4 in Australia to a high of 25.6 in Indonesia. Size of human population in coastal regions, good management or mismanagement of plastic waste disposal are all factors in the amount of waste entering the water.
The authors estimate 80 percent of marine plastic debris originates from land, thus offering a possibility of significant reduction through better waste management. They develop a prediction model showing that by 2025 the waste will almost double in low-income countries like Myanmar but will edge up just 1 percent in Australia. In total, they estimate a colossal 11.1 billion plastic items entangled on reefs across the Asia-Pacific region and expect the number to increase 40 percent by 2025 without stronger waste management intervention.
The study results are striking. The likelihood of disease rises from 4 percent in areas free of plastic to an average of 89 percent when the coral has such debris. Another issue is coral structural complexity which underpins micro-habitats for reef-reliant organisms. Unfortunately, the study finds that plastic debris is up to 8 times more likely to affect reefs with greater structural complexity. This lack of habitat can devastate fisheries through a drop in productivity by a factor of three. Thus public awareness here could be a critical factor.
The parrots in the local pet store are almost always at risk. It is human encroachment the owner tells us. Forests are cut down, reducing habitat and food sources, and diminishing parrot populations. Farmers plant crops in the cleared areas. The parrots may or may not eat these but are perceived as a threat and often killed, further endangering them.
Once upon a time, millions of rhinos roamed across Africa and Asia; now about 30,000 survive, and many species are extinct or about to be. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino lived at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya together with his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. He was 45, equivalent to 90 in human age, and quite infirm. Earlier this year, when his condition deteriorated to the extent he was unable to stand, the vets decided to euthanize. Hope lies with in vitro fertilization, and in the genetic material the vets collected from him. At some future date, it might be possibly to use this to create an embryo with stem cell technology.
The engaging, lovable and cuddly koala is in danger from environmental effects. its unusual diet of eucalyptus leaves carry a toxin it can usually handle, but increased CO2 levels reduce nutrition and eating more leads to ingesting more poison. Add to this the Australian drought drying the leaves, leaving little moisture and resulting in kidney damage.
The human footprint also threatens the snow leopard, most closely related to the tiger not its namesake. Ranging across the high mountain areas of central Asia, China and Mongolia, and revered in Kyrgyzstan, it has become a victim of human-wildlife conflict. The herders whose livelihood depends on their sheep, goats and yaks do not take kindly to raiding snow leopards. But their natural prey, the wild ungulates are suffering sharp declines due to competition with domestic herds. Yet this animal is an example of what a concerted effort to save a species can accomplish. Its status has been upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’.
Altogether, these studies and cases convey a stark warning. They show that environmental degradation is the promise of a dismal future in which mammalian wildlife is scarce, wild pollinators and consequently wild flowers and plants are sparse, and beautiful coral reefs succumb to plastic waste-borne bacteria depleting reef-supported fisheries. This is our legacy unless we take a step back to reassess human wants for their impact on the environment.
Author’s note: A version of this article appeared in Common Dreams
Namibia Enlists the IAEA to Help Study its Marine Ecosystem Supporting Key Fisheries
Authors: Miklos Gaspar & Lucas Smalldon*
The first-ever comprehensive study on the concentration of radionuclides and trace elements in Namibia’s coastal waters revealed that while radionuclide levels are very low, there is an indication of higher than usual concentration of certain trace elements. Further study is required to determine whether these are the result of human activity along the coast or are due to the underlying geology, according to a scientific report delivered by the IAEA to the Government of Namibia in late 2017, based on research carried out at the Government’s request.
“The IAEA report provides excellent information about the current status and can be used as the basis for future monitoring activities,” said Axel Tibinyane, Director of Namibia’s National Radiation Protection Authority. “As marine resources contribute significantly to our national development, it is imperative that they be used sustainably. The report will help us do that.”
Following this preliminary research, the IAEA will continue to provide support to the Government to gain better insight into the high trace element levels.
In addition to the country’s increasing population, uranium, gold and diamond mining, as well as industrial activity, are on the rise and there is a growing interest in seabed mining for phosphates. Namibia is among the world’s top five uranium producers. To assess any impact on the environment of this increased level of human activity, a baseline needs to be established, as some of these undertakings could result in increased levels of radionuclides and trace elements. The data in the report can provide such a baseline.
“This project is the first of its kind and has provided new information on the Namibian shelf,” said Deon Louw, the marine scientist in charge of the study at Namibia’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. “We need this knowledge to monitor and protect our marine ecosystem as human activity continues to rise.”
Increased coastal activities mean that new regulations are needed to monitor and manage natural and human-caused (or anthropogenic) radionuclides and trace elements that may contaminate the marine ecosystem, with potential impact on seafood, local populations and the economy.
Namibia’s coastal waters support a rich biodiversity and stretch along the south Atlantic’s turbulent Benguela current for over 1500 kilometres. Much of the coastline is a marine protected area, which is considered unpolluted. It is part of the northern Benguela large marine ecosystem — one of the most productive coastal ecosystems in the world — and supports valuable fisheries and mariculture industries. It is a highly dynamic environment: strong winds, seething currents, and underwater sulphur eruptions surround rich stocks of fish, plankton, and other marine life, including the world’s largest bacteria — visible to the naked eye.
Despite all this activity, little was known about Namibia’s levels of marine radioactivity and trace elements until now.
At the request of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, in 2014 the IAEA began collecting a diverse range of marine samples off the coast. Over 500 samples were gathered, including sediment, seawater, fish, mussels and seaweed. Several thousand measurements were performed on the samples. More than 40 researchers from 11 institutions in six countries participated in the research project.
In addition to providing baseline measurements for ongoing pollution assessment and regulation, radionuclides and trace metal isotopes can serve as tracers to better understand oceanographic and pollution processes (see Studying the oceans through isotopes). The study of lead isotopes, for example, can help assess whether the lead is present naturally or as a result of human activities. Lead’s isotopic signature can also provide information on the sources of pollutants.
“This research not only helps Namibia, but will also continue to add international scientific value by improving knowledge of global patterns of marine pollution,” said Martina Rožmarić, a research scientist at the IAEA Environment Laboratories. “In studying the presence of natural and anthropogenic radionuclides and trace elements, such as lead, mercury, copper, and cadmium, off Namibia’s seaboard, we are filling in a critical knowledge gap on the world map.”
Studying the oceans through isotopes
The concentration of radionuclides (natural and anthropogenic), trace elements and rare earth elements is difficult to measure. But measuring the levels of these substances and tracing them to their sources is central to understanding the state of the marine environment.
Several anthropogenic radionuclides can be detected at ultra-low levels; some, like the iodine isotope I-129 and the uranium isotope U-236, can be used as radiotracers to study oceanographic processes such as the movement of water masses or pollutants in the oceans and to improve the accuracy of marine dispersion models. Just like a colourful dye that can be observed in a water mass to see where it goes, these radionuclides have a unique signature that researchers can track to study different currents and see how fast it takes them to go from one part of the globe to another.
These isotopes are decaying slowly, which makes them a reliable tracer of natural processes, such as the circulation and mixing of water masses. But U-236 concentrations in the oceans are extremely low and can only be measured using highly sensitive accelerator mass spectrometry, which enables monitoring of ratios between U-236 and U-238, a more abundant natural isotope. In the Namibian project, these measurements were carried out at an IAEA collaborating centre, Spain’s National Centre of Accelerators in Seville.
*Lucas Smalldon, IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications
This article was featured in the IAEA Bulletin, March 2018.
10 reasons to plant a tree this spring
Did you know planting a tree is one of the easiest and most powerful things you can do to have a positive impact on the environment? It’s true. Trees clean the air, prevent rainwater runoff, help you save energy and even combat global warming. And they’re a snap to plant! No horticultural degree required. With Arbor Day just around the corner in April, there’s no better time to give Mother Nature a little TLC by planting a tree.
From the single homeowner in Nebraska planting a maple in her backyard to the 250 Comcast employees volunteering in communities devastated by hurricanes, fires and Emerald Ash Borer infestation by planting hundreds of trees on Comcast Cares Day (the nation’s largest single-day corporate volunteer event), people nationwide are getting their tree on this spring. Here are 10 reasons why you should join them.
Trees fight climate change
Wish you could do more than recycling and reducing your carbon footprint to combat climate change? Trees have you covered. Through photosynthesis, trees absorb harmful carbon dioxide, removing and storing the carbon and releasing oxygen back into the air.
Trees clean the air and help you breathe
Trees don’t just absorb CO2. They also absorb odors and pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and ozone. It’s estimated that one tree can absorb nearly 10 pounds of polluted air each year and release 260 pounds of oxygen.
Trees prevent soil erosion and rainwater runoff
During heavy rains, water runoff finds its way to streams, lakes and wetlands, creating the potential for flooding. It also picks up and carries pollutants along the way. The EPA and the Center for Watershed Protection are recognizing the importance of trees in managing runoff. Leaf canopies help buffer the falling rain and their roots hold the soil in place, encouraging the water to seep into the ground rather than run off.
Planting trees is easy
Gardening can be intimidating for newbies because there are so many variables. Which plants and flowers should you put next to each other and which should you separate? Which bloom in the summer and which bloom in the fall? When you’re dealing with trees, there’s none of that. Just choose a spot in your yard and you’re good to go. Here’s a video showing you all you need to know about planting your young trees:
You’ll save money
Trees conserve energy in summer and winter, providing shade from the hot summer sun and shelter from cold winter winds. With trees standing between you and the elements, you’ll spend less on your energy bill to heat and cool your home.
Trees increase your home’s value
Studies of comparable homes with and without trees show that, if you have trees in your yard, your home’s value increases by up to 15 percent. It’s all about curb appeal, and trees make your home and yard more beautiful.
You’ll attract birds (and critters)
Trees provide nesting sites, food and shelter for your bird friends. Hang a feeder in one of the branches and enjoy the birdsong all year long. Squirrels love to make their homes in trees, too, and watching their antics is a great way to spend a lazy summer afternoon.
Trees are good for your mental and physical health
A view of trees in urban areas has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety and even the crime rate. Tree-filled gardens on hospital grounds speed healing in hospital patients.
You’ll be giving your descendants a gift
Trees can live hundreds of years, so when you plant one, you’re giving a gift to your children and grandchildren. It’s a symbol of your commitment to the environment and the beauty of the world around you that will live on far beyond your own lifetime.
Join the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation for $10 and they’ll send you 10 trees selected for the region of the country where you live, at the right time to plant them. You’ll also get planting instructions and other information. The trees are guaranteed to grow or the Foundation will replace them.
An ancient Chinese proverb states: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
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