"[E]veryone’s an environmentalist — and yet the environment appears to be in worse shape than ever. The problems of the seventies are back with a vengeance, often transposed into new landscapes, and new ones have joined them. Species we hardly knew existed are dying off en masse; oceans are acidifying in what sounds like the plot of a second-rate horror movie; numerous fisheries have collapsed or are on the brink; freshwater supplies are scarce in regions home to half the world’s population; agricultural land is exhausted of nutrients; forests are being leveled at staggering rates; and, of course, climate change looms over all.
These aren’t issues that can be fixed by slapping a filter on a smokestack. They’re certainly not about hugging trees or hating people. To put it bluntly, we’re confronted with the fact that human activity has transformed the entire planet in ways that are now threatening the way we inhabit it — some of us far more than others. And it’s not particularly helpful to talk in generalities: the idea that The Environment is some entity that can be fixed with A Solution is part of the problem.
The category “environmental problems” contains multitudes, and their solutions don’t always line up: water shortages in Phoenix are a different matter than air pollution in Los Angeles, disappearing wetlands in Louisiana, or growing accumulations of atmospheric carbon. So instead of laying out some kind of template for a sustainable future, I argue that there’s no way to get there without tackling environmentalism’s old stumbling blocks: consumption and jobs. And the way to do that is through a universal basic income.
Every Birdy Must Get Stoned
Gizmodo has a fascinating and mildly creepy story about Tanzania’s Lake Natron titled “Any Animal That Touches This Lethal Lake Turns to Stone.” It features the haunting black and white photos of Nick Brandt, who placed the calcified carcasses of dead fauna in “living” poses above the alkaline salt lake that was the likely cause of their demise. The whole gallery’s got a very “Weeping Angels" vibe to it, eh?
There’s just one catch. Lake Natron shouldn’t really be called a “lethal lake”, because not every living thing that touches it turns to stone. But it is one of the most interesting bodies of water on this here planet, and a very important one, if you happen a flamingo.
Lake Natron is fed from underground hot springs, which keep its temperature near 50-60˚C. The shallow lake also has an extremely high pH, approaching that of an ammonia solution (pH 10-11). This is because of the high levels of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that are dissolved in its sweltering waters, along with a host of other mineral salts.
It’s those mineral salts that give the lake its name (“natron" is another name for a mix of soda ash and other minerals) and its rather lethal reputation. Most animals know that it’s a good idea to avoid Natron’s caustic waters, on account of how bathing in ammonia is discouraged by 10 out of 10 dermatologists. Fail to heed that warning? Brandt’s photos show the consequence.
But as we have seen so many times, no matter how inhospitable a place on Earth may seem, Mother Nature operates strictly under what I call the Ian Malcolm Principle:
Numerous salt-loving algae call Lake Natron home, their pink and red hues staining the serene saline slough a shade of reddish orange:
This color (let’s call it “roseblood”) is common in salt lakes around the world, perhaps most famously in Australia’s Hutt Lagoon, which glows Pepto-Bismol pink thanks to a microbe named Dunaliella salina:
But little pink microbial aliens aren’t the only biology that Lake Natron is host to. They attract a much larger form of life, one that shares the pink hue of its smallest residents: The lesser flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor):
Lesser flamingos feed on salt-loving pink algae, spirulina and other halophiles, filtering food as small as two hundredths of an inch in diameter using its unique filter-like beak. And like Goose (from Top Gun, not the bird), they do it while inverted. The skin on the flamingos’ legs has adapted specially to resist burns from this high pH water. It’s one of the more basic tales of evolution (puns!), if you think about it.
Lake Natron’s waters are so inhospitable to other animals (as Brandt’s photos demonstrate), that lesser flamingos have sort of cornered the real estate market. It’s their primary breeding ground. That means the future of their species literally depends on this place. Good thing they’ve got it all to themselves!
Except that they might not. Not for much longer, anyway. A few members of our own species see money in Lake Natron’s mineral deposits and want to set up industrial plants to extract them from the water. Tanzania’s government is pushing hard to build factories there. And that doesn’t even begin to include the effects that a changing climate could have on Lake Natron, flooding its delicate balance with excess rain, or drying it up completely.
It’s painfully ironic that the very chemistry that makes Lake Natron such a perfect home for the lesser flamingo, those same alkaline salts that have directed their evolution and the history of their whole species, could be the cause of the bird’s demise. If we aren’t careful, Brandt’s photos might foretell the future of one of the one animal that breathes life into this deadly lake.
(painting by C.G. Finch-Davies)
Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.
Carpe that diem, folks. You know how on the subway, they say “If you see something, say something”?
Well, if you see something about the planet that you’d like to change, do something. You’ve been given the gift of being right here, right now, so why not make the most of it?
This was the state of space debris in 2008 according to the European Space Operations Centre. The amount of space debris has now become so large that it is threatening economically vital orbital regions.
Space junk is an enormous problem. It’s also a very small problem. We’ve littered the skies with old gloves, lost bolts and dead satellites. Yes, space is big, but the danger is real.
I mean, have you seen the trailer for Alfonso Cuaron’s new movie Gravity? It’s utterly terrifying, and it illustrates precisely the havoc that space debris can wreak on men and machines in space. Also, space death is a silent death, so that makes it doubly terrifying. But I digress …
According to NASA, there are 20,000 pieces of known orbital debris larger than a softball. There are more than 500,000 pieces of debris larger than a marble. But the junk doesn’t have to be that big to do damage. Even a fleck of paint, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, can crack the windshield of the space shuttle.
To find out more, I highly, highly suggest reading this long but amazing article by my Wired colleague Adam Mann: Space: the Final Frontier of Environmental Disasters
What would 25 feet of sea-level change actually look like?
According to worst-case climate models (meaning “what would happen if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the rate we do today”), our grandchildren and great-grandchildren could experience a world with remarkably higher sea levels. Up to 25 feet higher.
Using data from a New York Times interactive feature, Nickolay Lamm made a collection of photos showing us just what that might look do to tourist destinations. io9 has even more, including Miami Beach and the Washington Monument.
The saddest part of these future-shock photos is that tourist destinations will be the last of our worries. This means entire cities could be at risk, from New Orleans to Los Angeles to London. And outside of industrialized nations, with their levees and engineers, more than 40% of the world’s population lives in coastal regions at risk of Earth-changing floods.
Earth contains over 10 million cubic kilometers of liquid fresh water. Most of that water, whose approximate volume compared to Earth is represented by the large water droplet at the top, is buried groundwater, much of which isn’t accessible by humans. Instead of flowing in our rivers and lakes or out of our wells, it’s buried deep inside the rocky nooks and crannies of Earth’s crust. Our ice caps, permafrost and permanent snows hold much more, although it’s equally inaccessible.
That smaller water droplet represents all the liquid fresh water that can be accessed by the world’s 7+ billion people. That droplet represents less than 100,000 cubic kilometers, and we have to share, recycle and conserve all that we can. Nearly a billion people don’t have access to clean water, and 2.5 billion don’t have anything resembling modern sanitation. Learn more about how we can all help at the UN’s World Water Day website. More about where to find Earth’s water from the USGS.
We live on a blue planet, but only a tiny speck of that blue is available to us. Water, water everywhere but nary a drop to drink/irrigate/wash with. Important to remember how precious that wet stuff flowing out of your faucet is.
(image remixed via MarcelClemens/Shutterstock)
At the time that our great-great-grandparents were dumping clinker, however, they only had hazy notions about the depth of the oceans, let alone what was going on down there. Just starting to map the depth of the ocean, let alone visit it, required two technological advances. One was the ability to fix a ship’s position accurately far from land, solved by inventions such as John Harrison’s longitude-determining chronometer. The other was steam-powered winches, which helped early survey ships to pay out and haul in the miles of cable required to plumb the ocean depths.
Today we can gauge the large-scale landscape of the ocean floor from satellites, map it in far greater detail using sonar, and visit its most extreme depths with deep-diving vehicles. Plastic, meanwhile, has replaced clinker as a common contaminant of the deep ocean. During our present expedition, we plan to collect sediment cores around the world’s deepest known undersea vents to see if there are any microplastics here: tiny ground-down remnants of plastic that may now be quite ubiquitous in the oceans.
Ocean explorers of the future are going to think we were slobs. Because we are.
One Cubic Foot
How humans’ choice to grow just one crop can affect nature’s balance.
A typical terrestrial ecosystem is a living mosaic of hundreds or even thousands of species, balanced on one another’s existence like a biological house of cards. From plants and bugs down to microscopic fungi and bacteria, there’s a world of life in just a cubic meter.
That’s what David Liitschwager’s new book One Cubic Foot set out to capture. Anything that came through a plastic cube one foot on each side was photographed and catalogued. It’s stunning just how much life there is right under our feet, or above our heads, at any moment. Move the cube just a few feet away? You may see a completely different slice of the biodiversity pie.
However, there are tales of caution within those pages. See those two photos at top? The top photo shows the biodiversity present in a typical slice of shrub land. Cooperative populations of over 100 plants and insects. The bottom? It’s from an Iowa cornfield, home to less than an actual handful.
That cornfield is the victim of the modern agricultural practice of monoculture.
Where there were once hundreds of species, living together on the richest soil in the midwest, there remain a sparse few. In manipulating nature to grow only one crop on a piece of land, we have created an almost alien world. It’s beyond a debate between organic vs. conventional (neither of which are perfect). It’s a question of simple biology, and I don’t like the answer.
Be sure to read Robert Krulwich’s review of One Cubic Foot. And then check out Michael Pollan talking about the danger of monocultures to nature and our diets.