13 April 2008

For the birds, too

In a previous post I discussed some observations of some of the apparent impacts of anthropogenic climate change on the avian co-inhabitants of the planet. Unfortunately for the birds, climate change is not an isolated issue. Humanity's alterations to the environment extend well beyond climate change -- there is little we have left untouched. Environmental degradation from human activities is rampant, a product of the endless pursuit of unchecked 'economic growth'. And the birds are beginning to pay the price.

Pesticides. Lessons from the 1960s are going unheeded. Songbirds in the Americas are being wiped out from the use of highly toxic pesticides and chemicals for export agriculture in Latin America. That these chemicals are dangerous has been well-understood since the early-1960s, with the publication Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

By some counts, half of the songbirds that warbled across America ’s skies only 40 years ago have gone, wiped out by pesticides or loss of habitat...

The migratory songbirds in most trouble include the wood thrush, the Kentucky warbler, the eastern kingbird and the bobolink...

While the pesticide usage is the proximate cause for the die-off, the underlying fault is found in our economic system. By 'externalizing' environmental costs , along with the exploitation of the citizens of the global South, maximum profit be created from the system.

Habitat destruction. Migratory and endemic shorebirds in Australia “...have suffered a massive collapse in numbers over the past 25 years”.

A large scale aerial survey study covering the eastern third of the continent by researchers at the University of New South Wales has identified that migratory shorebirds populations there plunged by 73% between 1983 and 2006, while Australia's 15 species of resident shorebirds - such as avocets and stilts - have declined by 81%. The study is published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.

"This is a truly alarming result: in effect, three-quarters of eastern Australia's millions of resident and migratory shorebirds have disappeared in just one generation," says an author of the report...

"The wetlands and resting places that they rely on for food and recuperation are shrinking virtually all the way along their migration path, from Australia through Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and up through Asia into China and Russia."

Most the the lost wetlands are claimed for human use. Agriculture and industry are the main culprits. As global economic growth (and population) expands, the pressure on the land rises. The demand for biofuels contributes. This is a global problem. For example, conservation programs in the US are under threat as farmers rush to take advantage of record-high prices for agricultural commodities.

Climate Change. Climate change affects bird in many subtle but potentially threatening way. Birds respond to various environmental cues – for example, the presence of water or a certain type and abundance of vegetation – to determine their behaviors.

Early experience affects where birds breed for life in some species. Birds from areas with poorer food and shelter have harder lives compared the nearby neighbors in richer environments. As the landscape changes in conjunction with the climate, some birds may simply not survive. For example, changes to migration timing caused by the observed earlier arrival of spring could be disastrous. If another species a bird depends on (for food, say) doesn't make the equivalent change, then it will be unavailable when needed. Recent reports from around the globe indicate that some bird species' migration habits are changing, while others are seeing shifts in their historic ranges.

Some, if not most, of the observed climate change is direct result of CO2 emissions, a byproduct of the “cheap” fossil fuel-based energy that runs our society. Again, by externalizing the environmental costs (e.g. pollution), our economic system covers up the true costs, allowing some corporation to register a 'profit'. The general public bears the cost with an increasingly altered ecosystem. A public subsidy of personal enrichment.


So, will we awaken to a global silent spring someday soon? If such a thing were to happen, one would hope that it would serve quite effectively as a Cataclysm, an un-ignorable environmental clarion call. However, it's not just one thing that needs to be fixed. Toxic pollution, wanton land clearance, ongoing and future climate change, CO2 emissions – all are playing a role and all must be tackled simultaneously. Humanity is running a dangerous experiment on the planetary ecosystem.

The worldwide decline in numbers in birds is a warning sign. A proverbial canary in a coal mine. A common theme in the problem is the economic system we choose to follow. A big part of the solution is to change to the accounting in society. True environmental costs must be factored in. The hyper-consumerism of the global North must be culled. The paradigm of 'endless growth' smashed by the reality of finite resources.

Failure to heed the warning has dire consequences, and not just for birds. Allowing the environmental consequences of our actions to remain unchecked creates an unacceptable risk for the future of our children. Climate change and these other environmental problems are real, no matter how much we may wish otherwise. We must act now with wisdom and foresight to correct the perverse incentives for environmental harm in our current economic system. We should do it not just for ourselves, but for the birds, too.

Images: by me!

Note: The birds pictured aren't particularly threatened in any way...

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