Hot off the press: Grist published my new article, an investigative piece on David Koch’s $100 million donation to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Why am I covering a philanthropic gift to a medical institution? Because NewYork-Presbyterian’s resources were strained to the breaking point by Superstorm Sandy, and Koch–New York City’s richest resident–continues to fund organizations that argue against the fact that climate change makes storms like Sandy worse. Oh, the irony. Read the full article here.
Documerica was an initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency that employed freelance photographers to capture environmental scenes in their own backyards. Between 1971 and 1977, citizen naturalists documented urban pollution, national parks, folklore traditions, farming, wetland ecosystems, forests and everyday life in the 1970s.
Inspired by Documeria, Natural History Theatre will interpret a photograph from the vintage collection in each episode of the series.
Scene: Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, May 1973. Two bird-watchers gaze toward the West Pond.
Girl: “I don’t know, Carl. I’m looking at a duck, sort of brownish, with a light-colored bill. It’s paddling past that clump of grass. See it?
Guy: [looks through binoculars] Yeah—[squints]
Girl: What do you think it is? [Flips through Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification] OK, I’m going to say ruddy duck. But wait, it’s not that small. Um, widgeon? I’m gonna go with an American widgeon.
Guy: Baloney, Pam. You can clearly see the dark head stripe. It’s most likely a green-winged teal.
Girl: Carl, those are listed as “rare” in this season. What are the chances some stray teal found its way to Queens and just thought, “I was on my way to Boca but heck, I’ll just relax here?”
Guy: All I know is, that’s not a widgeon. [peevishly lights cigarette and peers through binoculars again]
Several minutes pass.
Guy: OK, you’re right. It’s a widgeon. That’s just terrific.
As if we needed more convincing that the melting Arctic sea ice will create havoc on the world’s coasts, scientists from Rutgers and Cornell have found a link between the melting icepack and the unusual westward path of Hurricane Sandy last October.
Sandy did not spin harmlessly out to sea like most late-fall hurricanes. Instead, it hurtled abruptly towards the tri-state area, flooding the coastlines of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Now the researchers say they know why: The Arctic melt sent a cold, high-pressure air mass south toward the warm, low-pressure storm, blocking the hurricane’s movement out to sea and forcing it toward shore.
Scary stuff, especially for those of us living at sea level. Read my full story here.
News outlets are reporting the failure of a U.S.-proposed plan to outlaw the export of polar bear parts at the annual meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) this week in Bangkok. Canada is the only nation that allows the export of polar bear skins, teeth and paws, and vehemently opposed the measure. Russia strongly backed the U.S.’s proposal. Demark (Greenland) and Norway, the other two Arctic nations where polar bears live, opposed it.
Most sentient humans believe that Arctic sea ice, on which polar bears depend for hunting its pinniped prey, is disappearing due to climate change, threatening the bears’ survival. The delegates and conservation groups at the CITES meeting, however, could not agree on much else. Canada, Inuit groups and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) argued that subsistence hunting by Native peoples is sustainable, regulated and necessary for survival. The export of bear skins and teeth provides income.
The U.S., Russia, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) argued that scientifically verified climate change is already threatening the bears. At the current rate of Arctic warming and food availability, two-thirds of the 20,000-25,000 existing polar bears would be extinct by 2050. (In related news, scientists predict that commercial ships will be sailing blithely over the North Pole by 2050—as long as there are no polar bears in the way, maybe?)
About 600 polar bears are killed by hunters every year in Canada—some by Native people, some by trophy hunters. The exported pelts and bone are bought by foreign collectors.
It’s the unnecessary killing of bears that is the problem. Couldn’t the bear hunt be limited to subsistence kills and tightly regulated, similar to the indigenous whale hunting among Native peoples from the Pacific Northwest to the Arctic? The decrease in skins and bone on the commercial market would raise their price among collectors, earning more for Native hunters with fewer deaths. I guess one could argue that such a practice would encourage poaching, which both the Inuit and Canadian delegates at CITES said was currently nonexistent.
It comes down to climate change, really. In the grand scheme of things, the potential extinction of polar bears is but a horrifying side effect of a warming Arctic. When will the world agree on ways to save not just our wildlife, but our planet too?
Is it OK that I find this alarming? The Library of Congress has announced its acquisition of a version of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Or The Whale completely translated into emojis. Yes, those smartphone-friendly pictographs of happy faces, hearts, cupcakes and, perhaps in this case, Physeter macrocephalus.
According to the LOC, a data engineer named Fred Benenson started a Kickstarter campaign in 2009 to fund the translation project, and within a month raised enough money to put it together. He contracted thousands of people to translate one sentence of the book into emoji, had the best ones voted into place and compiled the book—Emoji Dick—from those.
Hence, the immortal first line of Melville’s masterpiece, “Call me Ishmael,” turns into pictures of a telephone, a dude’s face with a mustache, a sailboat, a whale (phew!) and a hand giving the “A-Okay” sign.
In his Kickstarter proposal, Fred explained, “I’m interested in the phenomenon of how our language, communications and culture are influenced by digital technology. Emoji are either a low point or a high point in that story, so I felt I could confront a lot of our shared anxieties about the future of human expression by forcing a great work of literature through such a strange new filter.”
Why would the Library of Congress be interested in acquiring the crowdsourced creation? “What is striking for the Library’s collections about this work is that it takes a known classic of literature and converts it to a construct of our modern way of communicating, making possible an investigation of the question, ‘is it still a literary classic when written in a kind of smart phone based pidgin language?’” says Michael Neubert, a recommending officer for the Library’s collections. “Simply demonstrating that it is possible is interesting in that regard.”
I’m not convinced that people will absorb the intensity of Melville’s writing and the timelessness of the story—or its grim struggle of man over nature—through cute pictures of boats and suns. I mean, there are no emojis of harpoons, blubber try-pots, or freaky peg-legged skippers for a reason.
An energetic tale of Puritan settlers, nomadic trappers and the unfortunate, lushly furred rodents that were their prime quarry.
I see Eric Jay Dolin’s “Fur, Fortune and Empire: Epic History of the Fur Trade in America” much like his 2008 book “Leviathan: A History of Whaling in America,” except on land.
Both industries relied completely on the slaughter of wild animals–no fur farming or aquaculture here. People saw both trades as astonishingly lucrative and regulation was minimal. Each depended on hardy hunters eager to take on the worst weather and terrain nature could throw at them. And most importantly, the fur trade and the whaling industry crashed when the populations of their prey, once considered miraculously abundant, disappeared due to human exploitation.
Early in the narrative, Dolin sheds light on the major role fur trading played in the settlement of the English colonies in America. The dour Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth settlements are usually thought of as farmers of dubious success (see: Thanksgiving), but Dolin points out that the trade in beaver pelts not only paid some of the colonist’s debts to their European investors, but also smoothed relations with the Native tribes. At the same time, the enormous profits from furs encouraged Dutch and French traders to horn in on English territory, leading to trade wars.
We often think of Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 expedition to the Pacific as the Americans’ first foray into the heart of the continent, but Dolin shows that fur traders were way ahead of them. Coureurs de bois and voyageurs (French-Canadian scouts and trappers) sailed the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, established trade with Indian hunters, and explored unknown tracts of wilderness before the U.S. government ever organized an official survey of the new nation. And decades before covered wagons rutted the Great Plains, John Jacob Astor’s fur conglomerate established the trading post called Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia.
The fur trade depended on a finite resource, however, and the dwindling populations of beaver, buffalo, bear and other fur-bearing animals could no longer support the industry by the end of the 19th century. As in the British and American whaling industry, the quarry that had been considered so abundant that extinction was impossible proved to be just the opposite. Dolin’s thorough research and deft prose enliven the ultimately tragic story of the fur trade in America.
New year, new books on my reading list—some released a few years ago, others hot off the press. I’m so excited to read these works, which all explore some aspect of historical exploration, discovery and philosophical challenge. Basically, if the title of the book is followed by a colon and then three nouns separated by an Oxford comma, I’m hooked.
After I finish reading each book, I’ll post a short review of its contribution to the history of natural philosophy, exploration and environmental politics.
Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America
By Eric Jay Dolin
Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
By Rebecca Stott
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
By Nathaniel Philbrick
A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War
By Amanda Foreman
Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit
By Joyce E. Chaplin
Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine
By Jason C. Anthony
Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure
By Arthur Conan Doyle
On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature
By Melanie Challenger
The Ice Balloon: S. A. Andree and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration
By Alec Wilkinson
Researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville reported 53 shark attacks in the U.S. last year, the highest total in 12 years.
The school’s International Shark Attack File report also showed seven fatalities worldwide, a lower number than the previous year but much higher than the yearly average of 4.4 deaths.
Global hotspots included Western Australia, a favorite haunt of great whites, and Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, a popular habitat of bull sharks. Both locations saw multiple attacks (five and three, respectively).
So what’s the reason behind the uptick in attacks? “What I’ve seen in all situations when there’s been a sudden upswing in an area is that human-causative factors are involved, such as changes in our behavior, changes in our abundance, or an overt shark-attracting product of something that we’re doing,” said George Burgess, director of the file housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. (English translation: It’s people’s fault.)
Following long-term trends, most shark bites occurred in North American waters (42). The 53 U.S. incidents include Hawaii and Puerto Rico, which are not recorded as occurring in North American waters in the International Shark Attack File database. Florida led the country with 26, followed by Hawaii (10), California (5), South Carolina (5), North Carolina (2) and one each in Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Puerto Rico. One fatality occurred in California, and Hawaii had the highest number of attacks since seven in 2007, more than its yearly average of four.
As any fan of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week knows, attacks are extremely rare and usually occur when shark mistakes a person for a food source. Most take place in shallow coastal waters. If you should be so unlucky as to have attracted the attention of an eager elasmobranch, take a proactive response and fight back. A good bop on the nose may disorient the shark and cause it to loosen its jaws.
“The responsibility is upon us, as humans, to avoid such situations or else pay the consequence,” added Burgess.
In October 2012, I began covering local environmental news for Coastal Commons, the online magazine of Going Coastal, Inc. This NYC-based educational nonprofit brings all of the groups that enjoy our urban coastal resources together–boaters, anglers, conservationists, government and nonprofit organizations. My focus tends toward environmental conservation and the potential impacts of climate change on our unique NYC harbor region.
As we saw from Hurricane Sandy, our seashores and coastal areas are in the bull’s-eye of increasingly powerful storms that are fueled by warming oceans. Before Sandy, I participated in a media call with several conservation groups to announce the release of a new study quantifying the risk facing federally-protected national seashores, from Cape Cod south to Cape Canaveral. Just a few weeks later, Sandy proved just how immediate the problems are.
Check out my story, Final Frontiers: Atlantic Seashores at Risk, at Coastal Commons for the full story.
I’m reposting a fabulous, complimentary review of The Forbidden Apple by Amazon.com Top 50 Reviewer Rob Hardy. Rob is not the demo I’d expect to laud The Forbidden Apple–he lives in rural Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, three kids and multiple pets–but I’m extremely grateful that he took the plunge and submitted an erudite, thoughtful review of my sexy, urban book. Thanks, Rob!
“Before pornography was a few clicks away on your computer, and then before you could slip a videotape of an X-rated movie into your VCR, you had to go out to see performed porn. You also had to go out to buy dirty magazines. Any American city big enough had places for such commerce, but there was no commercial sex scene more famous than that of our biggest city. It isn’t surprising that the history of New York’s sex-for-sale is lively and full of contradictions, and in The Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex & Sin in New York City (Ig Publishing), journalist and social historian Kat Long has chronicled the ups and downs of the city’s sex trade. Because New York leads the nation in many ways, this is a history of sexual culture in the United States, with particular attention to what has gone down in New York and in particular within the famous Times Square region. Long shows that though the region has been cleaned up for a few years, there has been over a century of attempts to rid the city of vice. The different versions of the vice squad through the century have fought the battle in different ways, but there has been so much give and take between the sides that it makes sense, as Long shows, to look at the different forces as symbiotic. “As everyone knows, the city is being rebuilt,” she quotes Police Chief William McAdoo as saying, “and vice moves ahead of business.” He said this, however, over a hundred years ago, and it remains true. (more…)