Thursday, January 21, 2010

Maybe We Ought to Hug Trees

Yesterday I wrote about the deep irony behind Avatar’s deep ecology storyline. I want to pick up on one more thread from the movie’s story: the worship of trees.

One movie character derides another as a treehugger, an epithet I doubt will be used in 2154, when the movie is set. And there’s a reference to there being no green left on Earth at this time. The Tree of Souls is the most important religious shrine on Pandora, and becomes a central player in the storyline.

Seems that idea raised the ire of the Vatican, which has condemned the movie for its celebration of pantheism and trees.

Which got me thinking about trees here on Earth.

It turns out that if a sick person in a hospital is recuperating from a disease, they get better faster, leave the hospital sooner, and are less likely to return if they see green outside their hospital window. Even one tree is enough for this effect to work. Imagine that.

Kids playing outdoors in nature during the day—swinging from trees, playing with acorns—are smarter (scoring higher on standardized tests), socialize better, exhibit less ADHD, and are less truant. Schools nationwide are trying to get kids back outdoors and into trees.

Trees are homes to innumerable other creatures. They cool the air in the summer, stop wind in winter, buffer noise pollution, and naturally remove—and lock away—carbon dioxide, thus ameliorating global warming. Plant trees around your house, and your energy bill goes down.

Here in the suburbs, they stop the scourge of stormwater: a tree’s millions of leaves slow rainfall’s velocity. After it rains, stormwater is slowly released by trees to the ground where it can safely percolate into soil. Remove trees, and rain pours unimpeded into our streets and immediately into streams, where it roils the stream’s banks, eroding them into naked cliffs.

And mature trees outside your home can raise its asking price by as much as 20%.

So trees offer innumerable services to us, but we have been doggedly doing our best to remove them—and religious leaders like the Vatican are fairly silent on the worldwide deforestation going on in plain sight around us every day.

Just look at what trees do for us: maybe we ought to worship them.

But don’t listen to me, I’m just a treehugger.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Avatar": Deep Ecology, Deeper Irony

Like millions of others, I just saw James Cameron’s Avatar this past weekend, and was totally surprised: as a naturalist and nature geek, I fell in love with—and bought—the nature of Pandora.

Bioluminescent forests. Six-legged insectoid wolves with glistening beetle-black skin. Monstrous rhinos sporting sledgehammer horns: duck! Multi-colored pterodactyls one plugs into—and rides through the skies. Tree seeds that float through the air like jellyfish. And, of course, 10 foot tall, blue-skinned Nav’i, the movie’s central characters.

I’m not alone. Kids across the planet love the animals of Avatar; so do scientists. Science writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon, author of the recent book Naming Nature, about the importance of knowing the natural world, published a lovely piece in the New York Times agog over the glowing forests.

OK, the movie’s plot is not that deep: Dances with Wolves meets Pocahontas meets FernGully. Fine. But somehow, the damn thing worked, and fewer better environmental movies have ever been made.
And since this will soon become the highest grossing movie ever (Cameron beating his own Titanic; he’s still king of the world), the highest grossing movie will have a dark green bent and provocative activist message:

If the industrial polluters come after your sacred forests, kill them.

But there is a deep irony behind the deep ecology. As I left the movie theater, workers were collecting mountains of trash, the detritus of viewers like me, millions of trees turned into popcorn buckets to be used once and discarded. And thousands of SUVs and minivans clogged access lanes into the megaplex built on a long-gone forest that showed the film with its plea to protect forests.

For decades, since 1970’s era Silent Running with Bruce Dern, our movies—not to mention our books and TV shows—have been greener than us.

We love deep ecology entertainment, but utterly refuse to live deep ecology lives.

We mourn the loss of the Tree of Life in Avatar, but watch the Amazon disappear without a peep. In fact, we contribute to it directly through profligate waste and indirectly through inaction.

While I loved the movie, I wish I understood the irony.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Copenhagen: the Policy Ice Thaws

What to make of the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen?

Not much, say most observers—it looks like there won’t be any kind of deal.

Fine. But we finally have a president who can say “global warming” with a straight face, we may finally be able to base public policy on sound science… and yes, we must make sure science adheres to its own protocols for research and publishing.

But Obama’s laying down a climate change gauntlet—a paltry 17% reduction in CO2 emissions—forced China to put its own number on the table, too, a more aggressive 40%. Will China make that number? Unlikely.

But this is a far cry from where we have been.

So while the ice thaws at both poles, the policy ice is thawing around the climate change issue…

…Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Get Out! Kids and Nature-Deficit Disorder

Not long ago, children spent the lion’s share of their free time outdoors, all pickup baseball games and flashlight tag, bike riding and fort building. City kids played street games and hung out.

The indoor world belonged to our parents. We owned the streets and vacant lots.

But today, numerous trends have colluded to disconnect kids from the outdoors, and Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods” coined the phrase—and garnered a heap of attention—nature-deficit disorder as the new name for this estrangement.

Kids are time-stressed and time-managed, chauffeured from ballet to soccer to play dates. Technology is complicit: kids play inside “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are,” one fourth grader says in the book. Parents have colluded in this, fear of strangers, ticks and West Nile preventing parents from allowing kids to play outdoors or walk to school. Overdevelopment and liability issues have kept kids away from green spaces, visitation to national parks has dropped, and, adding insult to injury, schools have downsized recess, giving kids no outdoor time during the week.

And a child in the 1990s roams over a territory only one-ninth of what it was in 1970. Obesity is rampant, as are attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity, and even depression. The average kid watches almost 40 hours a week of screens-- TV, computer, I-phone-- it's their full-time job.

Louv weaves together what Scientific American calls “acres of evidence” showing the need to connect kids to nature. To summarize, children with access to nature and the outdoors learn better, behave more calmly and appropriately, are more creative, and better at critical thinking. Time in nature fills their physical, emotional and spiritual deficits.

And nature needs children, too, but the next generation of John Muirs and Rachel Carsons are locked indoors. Since evidence indicates green giants get their green genes from outdoor inspiration, children will not seek nature as their life’s work.

The solution? What Louv calls “nature-child reunion” that returns kids to the outdoors.

Lots of groups are working on this issue, like the Children and Nature Network, created by Louv himself. I direct a small nonprofit, the Lower Merion Conservancy, that has begun addressing the disorder with a preschool group.

But mostly, it’s the job of parents to open our front doors and kick our kids outside.

Get out! It’s one solution to a world of problems.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Sturgeon is Born!

For those of us who think full-time about nature and the environment, it seems every story is worse than the one before. The Arctic is melting, species vanishing, forests declining, and so on…

So I was thrilled this week by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s front page story on the Atlantic sturgeon, an extraordinary and extraordinarily ancient animal—cruising our waters since the Age of Dinosaurs—that was once a commercially important fish.

As reported here, a biologist doing research in the Delaware River near Wilmington pulled in a net overflowing with piles of the pedestrian perch. Then he spotted a standout: a baby Atlantic sturgeon, hatched just this year.

Only seven inches long, Sandy Bauers writes “it was nevertheless a momentous discovery—long-awaited proof that the species was spawning in the Delaware.”

As the story recounts, sturgeon “was once the basis of a thriving caviar industry on the Delaware, the nation's largest. In the late 1800s, the river swarmed with boats and nets during spawning season, the shores were lined with cleaning stations. Then, largely because of overfishing and pollution, the population of Atlantic sturgeon plummeted to near-extinction in the early 1900s.”

The animal craves clean water, and has the kind of biology that typically dooms critters: long-lived animals themselves—and big, they get to be about 14 feet long—they become sexually mature only after almost two decades, a horribly long period of time.

As WHYY reported just this morning, this is the first record of a spawning sturgeon in the Delaware in 50 years.

Hope springs eternal.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Arctic may be a thing of the past"

Bad news from the north:

ScienceDaily (Sep. 11, 2009) — "The Arctic as we know it may soon be a thing of the past," says Eric Post, associate professor of biology at Penn State University. Post leads a large, international team that carried out ecosystem-wide studies of the biological response to Arctic warming during the fourth International Polar Year, which ended in 2008. The team's results will be reported on 11 September 2009 in the journal Science.

The team's research documents a wide range of responses by plants and animals to the warming trend. The scientists found that the increase in mean annual surface temperature in the Arctic over the last 150 years has had dramatic effects. In the last 20 to 30 years, for example, the seasonal minimal sea ice coverage has declined by a staggering 45,000 square kilometers per year. Similarly, the extent of terrestrial snow cover has declined steadily, with earlier melting and breaking up and an earlier start to the growing season.

"Species on land and at sea are suffering adverse consequences of human behavior at latitudes thousands of miles away," declares Post. "It seems no matter where you look -- on the ground, in the air, or in the water -- we're seeing signs of rapid change."

To read more of this very important study, click here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Got Milkweed?

Working in my side garden’s milkweed patch this week, a color combination unconsciously caught the corner of my eye, and my head snapped over. There, hanging head-down along the spine of a milkweed leaf was a very large, likely very happy monarch caterpillar.

Only a few feet away crawled another. Eureka!

You know monarchs, those big orange-and-black flutterers, all Halloween-striped. I’m a Philadelphian, so here’s my frame of reference: they wear Flyers jerseys. But the youngsters are striped like shown here: white, yellow, black. Bold. Dramatic.

Monarchs are ace botanists, only laying their eggs on milkweeds, nothing else. After hatching, the young immediately set to work devouring their world, plowing through milkweed leaves as fast as they can.

After all, that’s all they eat, breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner for several weeks—milkweed. They incorporate the weed’s noxious latexy chemicals into their own body, and gross out any unsuspecting blue jay that tries to eat them.

That’s why I keep the milkweed patch I inherited from the previous owner on the side of the house. Thought the stuff gets to be almost 6 feet tall, it provides sustenance to monarchs.

More milkweed, more monarchs in the world.

And these were the first had seen this year. Eureka!

So, got milkweed?

You can: simply go to and order your own milkeweed today!

p.s. And when these two larvae metamorphose into adults, this is the generation that will fly to Mexico, a stunning feat of migration for such a small critter.