Friday, July 18, 2008

"assisted colonization"

Here is something that could be right out of Brin's uplift. A new buzz word that has science fiction written all over it. Assisted Colonization. From Wired magazine I read that conservationists are now so concerned about species extinction, which has been set by some organizations to be 100 times faster than just 1 century ago, that they are now considering something that was once unthinkable. Relocating whole species that are at risk of extinction. Take for example the Arctic polar bear. At the present rate of decline of its' habitat, the bear could become extinct within a handful of decades. Plans have been formulated that would take the bear and other species of the Arctic and relocate them in the Antarctic.

Once dismissed as wrongheaded and dangerous, assisted colonization -- rescuing vanishing species by moving them someplace new -- is now being discussed by serious conservationists.

Even the often concervative Ecological Society of America's annual meeting in August will be preceded by a three-day discussion of assisted colonization, by ecologists.

- wired -

16 comments:

S.M.D. said...

Here's my problem with the idea:

Humans are notoriously stupid when it comes to helping animals. Sometimes what we do works, and sometimes it doesn't, but we always try even when doing so actually makes things worse. What happens if we relocate an animal to another area and the result is that that animal destroys the fragile ecosystem there? We've done this in the past by introducing rats, mice, goats, frogs, etc. to areas where they don't belong and have had to go to great lengths to exterminate them so the fragile balance is maintained.
I have a feeling we'll screw up in regards to assisted colonization for endangered animals as well. The problem with protecting species is that we can't save them all and as soon as we realize that he can place bigger priorities on animals that are most needed. Some animals just go extinct. That's what happens in nature. We have to let some species go the way of the Dodo...

paul said...

SMD
yes, well said! What first caught my interest is the fate of the white bear. The initial suggestion to move them to the antarctic seemed reasonable. 2 miles of ice isnt going anywhere soon. Then you have to think....free ranging apex predator , what is going to be the impact to the indigenous species. They certainly have never seen 1200 lbs of white death before. Can you imagine what one bear could do to the Emperor Penguin population?

wolfkahn said...

I agree that this is a dumb idea. Paul hits the nail on the head here. Most of the indigenous fauna of Antarctica would be easy prey to polar bears.

However, we should be careful not to underestimate the seriousness of the extremely high extinction rate. This is the proverbial canary in the coal mine warning us that we (all humanity) are not living in a sustainable manner.

Beam Me Up said...

Exactly so WolfKahn
This may not be a reasonable course to take, but something is going to have to be done before the canary drops. But I think that one of the mistakes we and for a greater part the rest of the world, that the problem is ours and if we fix our problem then everything will be fine. Sadly this is far from the case. Case in point, lets look at what just happened in China when it was determined that the air was so badly polluted that it would affect athletes and visitors alike. In response the Chinese government has closed the area to cars and motorcycles and forbade the local factories from operating. Measurements taken so far show no appreciable changes in the quality of the air. Unless there is a consensus and universal commitment to improve, nothing will improve

S.M.D. said...

I don't know if it's a big warning that we're so much a problem as that nature is a problem. We humans seem to have this assumption that we are separate from nature, except everything we do, even the things we, as humans, deem "unnatural", are actually the opposite: natural. Human beings are as much a part of the nature as a goat or chipmunk, or deer, etc. We just happen to be rather good at surviving, while other species are not. We have to be very careful how we fiddle with the rules of nature. Sometimes it's okay for a species to go extinct. That might sound cold and insensitive, but it's true. Hence why we have to place priorities on species that are the most valuable. Cute is not something to base value on. Which species are most important to its ecosystem? Those are the animals that need our attention the most, because when they die, the fragile balance of that ecosystem is compromised and we end up with more problems than we can handle.

So, having said that, I'll pose a question in regards to Paul's article: Is saving the Arctic polar bear absolutely necessary to the survival of an ecosystem? Or is the reason for the attention it receives because they're cute (as babies and even as adults)?

Likewise, because it will be brought up, can we 100% prove that we are responsible for the loss of its habitat? That means without a doubt, undeniably true. There can't be one little shred of evidence that suggests otherwise. The problem is that we can't. We assume that it is so, and we're told it is so, but it lacks weight because there is not, as of yet, the proof to indicate that we are actually killing the planet. Right now, given the evidence for and against, it's far more reasonable to say that we're aiding a natural Earth process (after all, the Earth was a lot warmer than it is today many millions of years ago and there is evidence of multiple ice ages, so wouldn't it be reasonable to suggest that rather than humans being the killers, it is the Earth going through a natural cycle with the help of human beings?).

This is one of my issues with the global warming argument. Do I think the planet is warming? Yes. I think the evidence of that is relatively unquestionable (although I believe it is far more complicated that people know or are willing to accept, because some places are actually experiencing weather that was more common 200 years ago). Do I think it's human? I think we're a part of it. I don't doubt that our over-consumption has become a factor in what is happening around the planet, but I don't think we're responsible for the upturn. We may be accelerating it, but the way I see it is that the Earth is going to go through these phases, as it has in the past, and we can't really stop it. All we can do is be smarter.

So, in the process of becoming smarter we need to start thinking in ways we aren't used to. You might say we have to think like science fiction writers: contemplating the future. The failings of the human species are primarily due to our inability to see in the long term. We are short-sighted, narrow-minded, and arrogant (not all of us, but generally the people who have power are). We need to start considering what our actions actually do in the long run. If we save the polar bear, what creatures will we have left behind that were more important? Ignoring a species because it is ugly may be detrimental, even devastating to the environment, yet we do ignore such species all the time and I have no doubt that such ignorance has caused us problems when it comes to the environment. Those important species have likely died because of us, and we ignored them because they just weren't as cute as something else.

Okay, I'm rambling.

Beam Me Up said...

smd ramble on my man, ramble on.

wolfkahn said...

Very good ramble smd! I absolutely agree that we shouldn't overlook "ugly" species.

The polar bear is the top predator in its ecosystem and its loss would have a significant impact throughout the Arctic (which would not be alleviated by transplanting it to the Antarctic).

S.M.D. said...

I won't pretend that I know a lot about the polar bear, but I would raise some issue with trying to save it, only for the sake of argument (I actually tend to agree the polar bear deserves saving, but along with the saving of a lot of other things directly related to the polar bear's survival).
But, to the argument.
The polar bear is the top predator of its environment and we're told, and generally accept, that its environment is dwindling, to a point at least (I can't remember which huge ice landmass has land underneath it and don't want to look it up right now). So, we'll just assume that eventually there won't be any ice (I don't think all of it will melt away, at least not on the planet as a whole. I have a strange theory that what will happen is the environment will take a drastic switch and certain areas will become colder while others warm up, but I'm also insane, so that's probably a load of bubkiss).
Now, the polar bear needs its habitat because other species need that habitat. The problem is that the species it eats are also falling down in numbers, some of which are threatened species. Polar bears don't have big numbers to begin with--few major predators actually do, with human beings being an exception, sort of (when we look at the ratio of our food sources--cows, pigs, etc.--to people, it's probably a similar ratio to the polar bear). So, by protecting the polar bear we could potentially offset what little balance is actually there right now UNLESS we also produce equally significant results in its food sources. If we drive the polar bear numbers up a couple thousand, that's more polar bears who will do one of two things:
1. Starve to death because they can't get to their food sources or food becomes too scarce.
2. Force several species that are prime food sources into endangered status, potentially making said species extinct and ultimately resulting in the polar bear going extinct itself because it can no longer survive in it's environment anymore (no food, the species dies).

This is why we have to be extremely careful and smart about how we fiddle with the environment. Saving polar bears is a good thing (good for the media cause they're cute and people are disillusioned into thinking they're cuddly, kind of like Panda's, which makes it rather ironic when such bears randomly attack their trainers or innocent bystanders in captivity; and of course it's good for the polar bears and the ecosystem it is a part of). But saving the polar bear and not saving species it relies on for survival will have drastic affects on the survival on the ecosystem overall. This is a delicate situation and our track record for protecting animals is not so good (our track record for fiddling with the environment is even worse...ask the Australians, they have enough problems with species that were dragged there by settlers that have since become a nuisance, and I'd say talk to the Hawaiians about their frog problem too, but from what I understand from that they only have a problem cause the frogs make noise, not because they're necessarily bad for the islands, which is sort of like people complaining about the sound of the planes landing near their houses when they chose to live by the airport).
Let's just assume, though, that we somehow become more successful in helping the environment (I know, it's hard to believe, but let's just say we get good at it), the next issue becomes how to fund this whole thing. We could probably protect the polar bear and the species it needs to survive (maybe the U.S. could handle that alone, but I can't guess how much it would cost). But there are going to be a lot of species we can't save (some of which may be somewhat important to their ecosystems) simply due to cost. There is probably enough money in the world, and labor, to make protecting every single species possible from dying out, but getting people to fork over that money, and labor, will be like trying to make staunch second amendment supporters to hand over their weapons. With that in mind we have to consider how to spend the money allotted to us for environmental protection most effectively. Unfortunately, leaving such decisions to the politicians has and probably always will fail (because for whatever reason we always end up with the most narrow-minded and arrogant of specieist individuals as our leaders, which is rather unfortunate--and yes, these is even so in countries that get a better rap than the U.S.; you might have better politicians, but you're not getting a whole lot done either, and that's sort of the point, even the open-minded politician is close-minded, and if you're lucky enough to get a real open-minded politician he or she is so outnumbered by close-minded ones he/she almost doesn't exist).
Then we have our petty differences. You're Muslim, she's Christian, he's Buddhist, she's a Pagan, and then there's democrats and republicans, Jews and anti-semites, Blacks and White supremacists, and the list could go on for miles and miles and miles. We are, as a species, so preoccupied by these differences that global efforts become nearly impossible. The U.S. and select countries work relatively well together (mostly England, Canada, and, on occasion, Europe, and probably Australia, but I have no evidence of that), but there are countries that don't work well with the U.S. And then there are countries that don't work well with certain other countries, and so on. So, even as certain organizations and perhaps nations try to pave the way to protecting the Earth and it's species there are people getting in the way of it for one reason or another. One day it's someone committing genocide, the next day someone is ticked off cause so-and-so wants to build something that that someone doesn't like (and rather than trying to negotiate on good terms, said someone sticks a big foot down and refuses to budge, making the option for friendly relations very difficult, since the so-and-so has also set down a big foot).
The biggest hurtle for humanity is getting over itself, and perhaps this sounds like preaching (it sort of is). Let's just say for this argument that global warming is 100% humanity's fault. We did it, we're killing the planet, and there's no argument. It's proven. What do you want us to do about it?
Even if the U.S. and her friendly allies (I say friendly because we have a lot of allies who are more like business partners with questionable takes on morality) all sat down and said "no more carbon emissions" and switched to solar powered cars (assuming that's possible and functional), it wouldn't matter. China and India would be burning the heck out of anything they could shove in a car because they're industries are so large. We think it's hard to make a transition in the U.S., but imagine if you have almost 2 billion people to do it with? Might be a little difficult, even with China's government. And if we put pressure on China (I think India is paving the way for alternatives more so than China, and is probably more willing to cooperate) it probably wouldn't work. China is China. Beautiful country, amazing culture, but a very strict, single-direction government that is very adamant about maintaining its authority and keeping the country profitable. We're talking a lot of huge problems with trying to make the world change. Some say lead by example, but that only works if people all believe similar things, which most of us don't. The U.S. could pave the way, but there will be dozens of countries who won't change out of spite, as petty as that sounds (and they probably have some good reasons to be spiteful, even if they are a bit petty). Israel could pave the way too, but we all know what the would do (probably nothing but spark more violence as the country becomes completely independent of foreign aid and even more technologically advanced). We're talking a lot of issues in the world and probably the biggest hurtle this species will ever face.
Kaku is the guy who spoke about the stages of civilization right? He mentioned that we're a Stage 0, with the probability that reaching Stage 1 is the most violent period and often the one with the highest failure rate. For us, this is probably very true. It's hard to conceive what would happen when we cross that threshold, but I can imagine it being filled with a lot of excitement and a lot of violence.

Okay, I'm done rambling with that. Hopefully there was a point in there that was made...

Ron Huber said...

Great thinking all, but I fear you're all outside the box looking in, when you should be inside the box peering out.

By that I mean that the only practical 'assisted colonization' that needs take place, or that would actually make a genuine difference, is of course, our own splendid, clever, adaptable species.

WE are the apex problem species in Terra's great biological equation.

As s.m.d. dryly notes:
"We just happen to be rather good at surviving, while other species are not."

Perhaps rather we are speedier at _adapting_, more pitiless, compared to earth's other flora and fauna. Look at the record - our species exploits, draws down or destroys one species after another - often many at once. One planetary resource after another, clean air, land and water must needs be poured down humanity's ever hungering mega-maw.

Inasmuch as all those other species get along splendidly in the absence of homo sapiens, but are hopelessly degraded, killed, displaced, whenever they comes in contact with us or our byproducts, the only sane assisted colonization program would be one that moves our species off planet.

The rate of species decline, extirpation, and extinction on Terra are now too rapid for meaningful assisted colonizing of non-human species to be more than a gesture.

For example, we're savaging the marine protozoa, without which most hatchling marine fish must starve, for during the first week of their lives their soft jaws can only consume marine amoebas and other shell-less microbial life. If they don't find a steady enough supply before their yolk-sacs dry up, they're goners. And yet into their watery micro-environment flows the suite of germicidal products and wastes we're devised, from oil-based runoffs, mining wastes to pesticides, herbicides to....

There is about as much marine biomass living as bacteria and microbial animals and microalgae as megafauna and macroalgae - and we ought not forget their importance to we megafauna and simply poison them off. Bad idea. If microbes crash. we're done. Not to mention poor Neptune.

How do we assist amoebas in colonizing other habitats? Let alone the many other microscopic animals that our spcies is so blithely knocking off

We - Humanity - we're the adapatable species; we can do it. NASA, CSA, other space agencies; the many entrepeneurs now pouring capital and brainpower into normalizing our species being in outer space are opening the way for assisted colonization of H. sapiens

Simultaneously entertainment space voyages like Virgin Galactic's offerings are drawing in otherwise uninvolved economic elites, with the likelihood of further capital investment into space voyaging.

All that capital is necessary to make any space colonies of any size and duration possible. Similar to the various ages of invasion or colonization on earth that our species has gone through, these off-planet explorer and colonizers need cash from non-colonists to carry it off.

But, one will protest, we would have to assist every living human being in colonization for it to be ethically and morally sound.

But that is only a conceit of our species: that every kilogram of the untold thousands of tons of human biomass, every variant of the human genome, is SO precious, that it must all be assisted into space colonization or nobody.
The claim is that we're...er.. different from the rest of Gaian biomass. Our species' protoplasm is...um...special.

One hardly thinks so!

S.M.D. said...

Well, adaptation is a part of survival, so while we adapt faster than other species, we are essentially "better" equipped for survival.
The problem with pinning humans down with being the prime destructive force is that it leaves out the true destructive force behind everything: nature. We aren't involved in the majority of extinctions. More species go extinct than we even know about, most of them just failed evolutionary jumps (something grows an extra tooth and finds out that said tooth actually isn't all that useful and then it dies out). Not to mention that we're not the only ones who destroy other species. There are certain species of rabbit that went extinct in the U.S. that had nothing to do with human involvement, but over predation (for whatever reason those rabbits weren't very bright). Some rabbits simply got booted out of an ecosystem and when they were introduced were unable to survive (which explains why they got booted out in the first place...not to mention that the balance was re-established without them as a piece of it).

And we are special. We're alive, we're human, we're talking, and we're here. The very fact that we even exist in a universe, heck, even a galaxy as hostile as the one we're in is nothing short of amazing. The fact that any life exists on this planet (or any other planets) makes said life special.

We're a part of the natural processes of this planet. Elephants destroy habitat too, and if the were more elephants they'd do it on a much larger scale and you'd notice. There are loads of extremely destructive species on this planet, but it's humans get get pegged as the bad ones. The only reason that is is because we're human. If we were an elephant we probably wouldn't consider the fact that we're destructive. Freedom of complex, rational (or even irrational) though is something to admire, even if we do make silly mistakes as a species.

We do need to get off planet, but not because we're killing Earth, just because it's the smart thing to do. There are just a tad too many of us as it is. It'd be nice to have some other planet to go to (imagine the tourist trade :P).

Ron Huber said...

Well, every bacterial species spends much of its life broadcasting a "we're special" message to all comers, so I suppose our species is entitled to as well. (see quorum sensing)

One doesn't want to think that our species is just playing keeping-up-with-the- (destructive)-Jones' in competition with elephants, rabbits, dogfish etc. Besides the comparative scale of impact is not remotely close

Yes, species happen and unhappen all the time. For most of Terra's biological history, monocellular life was it. We are simply in an interval when Gaia appears to be trying out converting part of its biomass to multicellular organisms. Doubtless this phase, interesting and 'special' as it is and as we hominids have decided we are, will pass, and monocellularity will resume its monopoly.

But one shouldn't look down at the little buggers. Research into the aforementioned quorum sensing processes of earth's microecology is revealing far more complex microsociologies (for want of a better word) than was dreamt of. There are no solitary or loner bacteria their communication spans the spectrum f bacterial species.

I am of the opinion that those studying this communication are on the threshold of something. That we'll actually get a signal from Below. A combined signal from the micro-many, that would stand revealed if the same signal analyitical programs used by the SETI folk were applied,and sufficient noise were combed away.

But that's hyperspeculative. What better for Beam Me Up, though,eh?

S.M.D. said...

No, I wasn't saying we are as destructive as elephants, but I was simply pointing out that humans are capable of considering their destruction on a grander scale than elephants. If there were a billion elephants on this planet we'd all notice the destruction they are capable of (and would likely do something about it, perhaps hunting). Humans aren't really all that bad. We're sometimes overly critical of ourselves because we're human. There more things to be proud of in being human than there are to be ashamed. And making mistakes is part of what makes us who we are as a species. At least we can learn from them. Some species don't learn and go extinct as a result.

Ron Huber said...

Really the question is/was would it be better for the nonhuman species of the Planet if homo sapiens were elsehere?

Our adaptability should require of us a mandate self imposed or not of making our intersection with natural terra ever less disruptive, not more. natural habitat frozen or temperate or tropical -where gaia hangs out, ought to be hono0red not dumped dredged despoiled . The newest m\ federal laws allow easy cash opayment to destroy wet ecotones.


If we become capable of extra-terran colonization, and the quality of life for the rest of Life on Earth would be vastly improved by our so doing, then oughtn't we?

Of course such outmigration would not be logistically possible anyway - at least to any great percentage of existing human biomass. And unlike colonial organisms like

S.M.D. said...

As I've said, we're as much a part of this planet as anything else here. We grew up here as a species. We're not even that destructive. The only reason we see ourselves as a problem is because too many of us are not conserving and fighting the natural instincts within. Unfortunately overpopulation is a big problem.

As for leaving Earth: We should never leave this planet permanently. This is our home. Even if we find another planet, Earth is still where we belong. Colonization is nice, but moving off completely is something I don't want and most of us don't want.

Not to mention: moving off planet entirely won't solve the problem. If we don't learn to conserve as a species then we'll just do what we're doing to Earth to another planet. That doesn't help us. We have to learn to take care of ourselves, our planet, and our fellow species.

Beam Me Up said...

Wading in here, I really have got to take issue with a sentiment that asks "would the Earth be Better without us" The idea is very disconcerting. This IS our home. Nature saw fit to "raise" us, and I for one am not going to spend one second apologizing for that. A youngster that has an untidy room is not summarily executed, no, as adults we instruct that it would be ever so much nicer to have a clean living area. The question is not would the earth be better without us. Its, where are the adults and its time for us to grow up. but saying "well this is a proper shit hole, time to leave, it will clean itself up" is every bit as irresponsible to start with.

S.M.D. said...

I just wanted to say that that is a really good point. This is our home. We should seek to find other planets to live on, but I don't think we should ever abandon this planet. I love this place. It's perty.