An existential threat looms above the head of our collective civilization. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humans have caused a 1C rise in global temperatures, and this will reach 1.5C in the next couple of decades, catalyzing a warming trend that will last thousands of years, unless we dramatically halve our emissions by 2030 and reach carbon net-zero by 2050. The recommendations are urgent because the consequences of this warming are dire, and we argue they don’t go far enough.
This warming has and will continue to be accompanied by unprecedented environmental destruction. Fire seasons have expanded dramatically on the West Coast of the United States, prompting California to employ prison labor in firefighter roles, threatening to bankrupt West Coast utility company PG&E with $30 billion in costs, and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes in California.
In addition, crop yields are threatened from a combination of heat (goodbye Coffee Arabica), drought and unpredictable precipitation patterns, which is stressed further by the loss of topsoil from industrial agriculture. Rising seas, a result of melting ice and weakening gravitational pulls from the enormously heavy Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, threaten to displace people from coastal developments to the tune of 1.4 billion climate refugees within just four decades.
These realities are sobering, but we make a mistake when we consider these consequences in isolation and only from their immediate impact on human structures. As we attempt to balance the money book, our planet is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction in which average species loss is occurring 1,000 times the natural rate and likely to climb even higher — as much as 10x higher. And this habitat decay, and loss of biodiversity, is something we should all care about.
As correctly pointed out in the 2018 WWF Living Planet Report, “Everything that has built modern human society, with its benefits and luxuries, is provided by nature.” In the same way that sand is the building block for much of our built environment, the natural services provided by the planet’s ecosystems form the foundation of life on Earth, providing the air we breathe and water we drink; regulating and purifying that air and water; generating the raw materials with which we do our building; protecting our coasts from tide surges; absorbing and preventing the spread of biological pathogens; granting medicines and scientific knowledge; and so much more.
Biodiversity can serve as a precious book of knowledge, each line written over eons, and containing the secrets to adapting to a changing climate, as we discuss in our Ashes Ashes podcast titled, “Irreplaceable.” Researchers are studying the genetic information stored in plant species resilient in drought, while farmers around the world are maintaining community seedbanks to protect seeds suited for geographically-specific conditions. These efforts are virtuous, as each species lost represents millions of years of stored information permanently and irrevocably lost.
The Death We Cannot See
In 2017, a landmark study from Germany shocked the world. Data acquired over 27 years revealed that between 76% to 82% of flying insect biomass had been wiped out in Western Europe between 1989 and 2016. This is an incalculable loss that will reverberate far and wide as insects play important ecosystem roles, such as pollinators for plants and food sources for birds. But it begs the question: How could such a dramatic and rapid shift take place unnoticed in front of our eyes?
To help answer that question, we turn to Dr. Bernie Krause. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) Krause is a musician, author and founding father of the science of soundscape ecology. As a musician, he helped pioneer electronic music in the 1960s, introduced the synthesizer to countless bands and musicians, and adapted the synth for film scores for the first time. It was in the late 60s, though, that he discovered the joy of listening to and recording wild natural soundscape. Through his work recording, preserving and analyzing the sound of natural soundscapes, Krause has helped reveal new and invaluable understandings of the natural world.
Under the branch of soundscape ecology, Krause coined the words geophony, biophony, and anthropophony, describing respectively the sound of the natural world (rivers, wind, rain), the collective vocalization of species and the cacophonous noise of human activity. What Krause discovered is that species rely on sound as a function of their survival, just as much as something more tangibly obvious to us, like foraging for food.
By recording the sounds produced naturally within habitats, and then examining visual spectrogram readings, Krause realized that species adapt their voices (or chirps, clicks, thumps, etc.) into frequency and temporal niches, so as not to be drowned out by other sounds. A bird, for example, finds a frequency niche through a high-pitched song that differentiates it from the low-frequency roar of a bear, while two birds that sing at similar pitches might find temporal niches by vocalizing at different times or in different rhythms.
By inserting their vocalizations into unique spaces, animals are able to carry out important functions necessary to their survival. Some of these functions come to mind, like attracting a mate or intimidating a rival, but others are less obvious. Certain toad species in North America, for example, avoid predators by vocalizing in synchronicity, disrupting a potential predator’s ability to isolate any one individual.
Krause reminds us that the sound of nature is a rich source of information, from the interesting (the speed of a cricket’s chirp can be used to check the temperature) to the practical (a skilled hunter can track a prey at night by observing the changing patterns of insect vocalizations responding to the prey’s movements).
More importantly, listening to the sounds of nature helps reveal all that is being lost. In 1988, a logging company convinced a community in the Sierra Nevada mountains that if they employed selective logging, they could preserve the habitat while despite their activity. Krause was brought in to record the soundscape of the forest right before the logging took place, and then again a year later after it was done. When the later spectrogram was compared to the first, it was apparent that the forest experienced a dramatic loss of biodiversity.
And that’s precisely the point. As powerful as our eyes may be, they are blind in too many ways to the disappearance of habitats all around us.
Another important revelation emerging from Krause’s work is that the sound from human activity (anthropophony) is penetrating the subtle sound niches that species have carved for themselves, disrupting their ability to function. While recording in Yosemite National Park one day, Krause listened as the sound from a jet plane four miles away disoriented the synchronized chorusing of frogs, and the resulting breakdown of their vocal shield allowed coyotes, foxes and a great horned owl to pick them off one by one until the frogs could finally re-establish their collaborative symphony a full 45 minutes later.
In marine environments, sound can be the most important link between members of a population, and as anthropogenic introduction of ocean noise increases at an exponential rate, our sonar, oil and gas exploration activities and ship engines are all going off like bombs in the ears of marine species, causing whales to die and having untold repercussions on other populations.
We asked Krause why it has taken us so long to notice the connections between ecosystem health and sound, and he replied that we have been using the wrong models of scientific inquiry. We have been emphasizing the individual components of ecosystems at the expense of the whole.
This perspective seems to be backed up by data. For instance, according to researchers at Stanford University’s Department of Biology, and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s Instituto de Ecología, the current global sixth mass extinction is much worse than it might appear when examining individual species loss alone.
If our models of compartmentalized scientific inquiry have made us deaf to the destruction of the natural world, perhaps we should be asking why those models survived in the first place. Could it be that our research has failed us because the economy that research often serves has no use for a holistic approach to understanding the world?
After all, a logging company does not make money from examining the intricate relationships between truck engines, forest cover and songbird vocalizations. A logging company makes money from extracting resources and moving on to the next site once the earth has been made bare.
What kind of civilization would tolerate such destruction? Only one that has been made blind and deaf. It’s time we started connecting the dots. In the world of academia, consumer debt, raw mineral supply chains, immigration, pollution and social injustice are all separate fields of study. But there is an underlying force that connects them all, and that’s our reliance on infinite economic growth and capital accumulation.
In fact, our drive for growth has placed the world on the precipice of disaster from sand scarcity alone, one of the Earth’s most plentiful resource behind air and water. This scarcity has encouraged the rise of illegal and irresponsible industrial sand mining that is depleting rivers of the microorganisms living just beneath the river bed, depriving beaches and river deltas of sediment and denying water-tables and aquifers of their replenishment, as the sand that would normally trap river water and deliver it underground has been extracted and put to use laying concrete foundations, which ironically prevents even more water from seeping underground.
Toward a Holistic Future
At one point not long ago in North America, passenger pigeons roamed the skies by the billion. Flocks blocked out the sun and the collective weight of birds snapped tree branches like claps of thunder. Populations of cod off the coast of Iceland were once so great they impeded the paths of our ships. No longer. If we have been blind to the destruction occurring on the other side of the road, and deaf to the species rapidly departing the stage, there is nothing left but to recommit ourselves to the truth. Recommit to a holistic view of the world — a view that seeks to form connections between the seemingly disparate cogs that power our industrial world.
And if we commit to balancing the ecological book over the money book, we might discover the moral hazard of using renewable energy to grow our carbon footprint, and that it makes no sense to quantify the value of breathable air with dollar signs, because that simple act encourages an economy that looks at a dying world and asks how can we turn that death into economic opportunities.
Only through our collective voices can we beat back the predatory forces of profit and destruction breathing down our necks. If this seems impossible, just remember that it wouldn’t be the first time a species has vocalized for its own survival.
*[Ashes Ashes is a weekly podcast hosted and produced by Daniel Forkner and David Torcivia. Click here to visit the website.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.