Get a FREE Issue of Earth Island Journal
Sign up for our no-risk offer today.

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Latest News

Latest News

Biodiversity Limits Disease Outbreaks Among Humans and Wildlife

Habitats with a wide variety of plants and animals serve as biological buffers from pathogens, says study

That protecting nature and its biodiversity provides us with numerous benefits — from aesthetic pleasure, cultural, and spiritual enrichment, to safeguarding life as we know it on Planet Earth — is quite well known. Now there’s increasing evidence that maintaining a wide variety of life can help protect us from diseases as well. Conversely, loss in biodiversity, more often than not, increases the spread of pathogens. A new study published in the journal Science recently underscores years of research to this effect.

Masked Tree FrogPhoto by Andreas KayA masked tree frog, Smilisca phaeota. Nearly one-third of the world's amphibians are threatened or extinct, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Our world has lost more than half of its biodiversity since 1970.

High biodiversity has now been shown conclusively to reduce the transmission of many infectious diseases of wildlife, humans, and plants,” Dr Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College and lead author of the study, explained in an interview. “Preserving biodiversity appears to be a valuable and useful way for humans to protect themselves from exposure to pathogens. For diseases of humans, there is very strong evidence now that naturally high levels of biodiversity reduce exposure to the pathogens that cause West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and hanta viruses.”

Keesing has specifically been studying the ecology of Lyme disease and the recent increase in tick populations, which carry the Lyme bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, in the forests of northeastern United States. (The incidence of Lyme disease in the US has nearly tripled since 1995). Her research indicated that this increase was in direct proportion to the explosion of populations of mice, deer, and other tick hosts that are less skilled at killing the piggybacking parasites, and in inverse proportion to the fall in populations of other tick carriers, such as opossums, which are better at picking off and killing ticks that try to bite them.

The research concluded that the latter group of animals can actually serve as a biological buffer between the Lyme bacterium and the humans it infects by killing off ticks before they get a chance to latch on to humans.

Keesing postulated this theory of the “dilution effect” of biodiversity in a 2012 study while at Siena College. Since then, she and other researchers have …more

(0) Comments

Poland’s Primeval Forest Has Lost its Staunchest Defender

Obituary: Janusz Korbel

Ecologist Janusz Korbel, defender of Poland’s primeval Bialowieża Forest, passed away earlier this month. He was 69 years old. An architect and urban planner by training, Korbel was a founding member of the deep ecology movement in Poland and for the past 21 years had dedicated his life to protecting Europe’s last stretch of lowland forest in against logging and development.

Janusz KorbelPhoto by Agnieszka SadowskaKorbel believed that deep ecology could be cultural in some ways, but also held fast to the principle that nature does not need humans.

Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus Białowieża (pronounced byah-wo-vyeh-zhah) Forest is one of largest remaining parts of the immense 8,000-year-old forest that once stretched across the European Plain. Divided  between Belarus and Poland, the 580 square mile forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to myriad flora and fauna, including more than 250 bird species, 1,500 species of fungus, moose, wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boars, and the largest wild population of the European bison, the continent’s  heaviest land animal.

The Polish section of the forest (one third portion of the entire forest) includes the country’s oldest national park — Białowieża National Park.  Established first as a nature reserve in 1921, and later a national park in 1932, the park covers an area of about 153 square km (about 17 percent of the forest area on the Polish side) and is famous for its bison population and, perhaps even more, for its strictly protected 10 sq km inner zone of old growth, which has existed without much human intervention for nearly 800 years. This heart of Białowieża, called Obręb Ochronny Orłówka, is accessible to tourists only under the supervision of a guide. The 83 percent of the forest that lies outside the national park is open to selective logging. It’s this area that’s been the subject of an ongoing battle between conservationists like Korbel and local foresters.

I first met Korbel in 2005 when I was doing doctoral research in the village of Bialowieża. As a cultural anthropologist, I was interested in the ways communist and peasant pasts interact with conservation politics. Korbel drew me into his world of art, music, photography, and activism, and a wide network of friends.  He had a gentle voice and demeanor, yet he was …more

(0) Comments

Green Activism in Palestine

A permaculture project near Ramallah hopes to reconnect the people in this conflict-ridden region with nature

Land is key to the ongoing occupation in Palestine. Wars have been fought over territory and legal battles have spun out for decades over matters as basic as accessing a plot. Despite land being such a major issue, the human cost of occupation means that the environmental cost is forgotten not just by Western outsiders like myself, but also by Palestinians themselves.

women and kids at the nature parkPhoto by by Morgan CooperDuring family Friday's at the Mashjar, parents and children learn about nature together via various fun activities.

The destruction of olive trees has, of course, become almost a symbol of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The cultural significance of olive branches as messages of peace add a metaphorical layer to the trials Palestinian farmers face when their income and heritage is destroyed. (Read the Journal’s 2002 report on this issue here). However, there are many other native plants and wildlife that too, are an integral part of Palestinian history and culture.

While walking in the hills around Ramallah with a group of friends recently, I ran into Saleh Totah, an activist who co-founded Mashjar Juthour, a 2.5 acre arboretum and eco-park on the Thahr al Okda hillside. Totah and his partner, Morgan Cooper, started Mashjar Juthour, which translates roughly as “the Roots Arboretum,” in 2013 as a permaculture education project seeking to re-establish the diverse range of flora that flourished in Palestine years ago, but which has been lost in conflict and in ignorance.

The project is one of many that have cropped up in Palestine in recent years, including rooftop gardens and fish farms, that hope to reconnect the people in this conflict-ridden region with their natural environment and inspire Palestinians to work towards a sustainable future for themselves and their land.

That day, and on a subsequent visit when we helped to clear stones, we heard about the different plants growing in the Mashjar: Palestinian oak with its edible acorns, orchids which are used to make the drink salep, tiny, wild peas which we ate from the pod. Many of Mashjar's plants have a dual purpose. They make the land itself rich and sustainable while also providing sustenance. Lentils, for example, are grown for food and at the same time return nitrogen to the soil for hungry trees.

more

(0) Comments

‘Animal Abuse and Harassment is a Pervasive Problem in the Wildlife Film Industry’

In Conversation with wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer

Chris Palmer is one of the world’s foremost wildlife documentary experts. Over the course of his nearly three-decade long career in filmmaking, Palmer has spearheaded the production of more than 300 hours of original programming for prime-time television and the IMAX film industry — work that won him and his colleagues many awards, including two Emmys and an Oscar nomination (for the film Dolphins). Palmer has swum with dolphins and whales, come face-to-face with sharks and Kodiak bears, camped with wolf packs, and waded through Everglade swamps. The veteran filmmaker is president of One World One Ocean Foundation and the MacGillivray Freeman Films Educational Foundation, which produce and fund IMAX films on conservation issues.  He is also the director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University.

Chris Palmer

In his 2010 memoir, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, Palmer revealed troubling trend toward sensationalism, extreme risk-taking, and even abuse that’s pervasive in the wildlife film business. In his latest book Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker, released earlier this year, Palmer returns again to the dark side of wildlife filmmaking, openly admitting that he too has been “as guilty of fabricating phony wildlife scenes” as those he now criticizes, and calls for wildlife filmmaking to move in a healthier direction.

Palmer recently took time out from his busy schedule to talk with Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project. We found him to be a very thoughtful critic of the film industry, describing how too many nature filmmakers conduct themselves in ways that harm wildlife, mislead viewers, or fail to promote conservation of the natural world. 

IMMP: In your new book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker, you talk about how the industry has been negligent in making nature films. Can you summarize what you see as problems?

Chris Palmer: The abuse and harassment of animals during the filming of shows has been a pervasive problem and continues to be so even now. For example, just last September, Discovery made a program about a naturalist being eaten by an anaconda. That kind of filming puts an anaconda though a significant amount of stress. Luckily, not all wildlife programs are like that at all.

The second problem is that there is a lot of …more

(0) Comments

Coping With Naples’ Toxic Waste Crisis

Can the Campania countryside survive the damage wreaked upon it by decades of illicit trash dumping?

In Naples, a seaside metropolis of three million in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, the city’s public services sometimes “forgets” to gather the trash from city dumpsters. A week passes and the waste overflows from the sides of dumpsters. Two weeks pass, and the old and weak cannot launch their trash bags to reach the height of the odorous mountains. The dumpster, sidewalk, and half the street soon vanish.

Finally, a month passes and the people, despaired by sight and smell, set the trash mountain ablaze. My fiancée, a former medical student from Sicily, races around the house slamming windows and cursing, trying to keep out the carcinogenic smoke.

Garbage bags on a street cornerPhoto by mksfca/flickrNaples has a garbage collection problem. In the past 20 years, Naples and the Campania countryside have attracted new nicknames: “Land of Poison,” “Triangle of Death,” “Land of Fires.”

In the 1600s, when Naples was experiencing its Golden Age, Goethe described the area as the “most fertile plain in the world.” French writer Stendhal once cried, “Paris and Naples, the two true capitals!” Naples was, and some argue still is, the city of art, love, and philosophy — a city that wears her pleasures in the streets.

In the past 20 years, however, Naples and the Campania countryside have attracted new nicknames: “Land of Poison,” “Triangle of Death,” “Land of Fires.” A land once fertile and revered has devolved into a place where toxic waste seeps into water sources; where black pillars of smoke from burning garbage dumps have exposed local populations to increased risk of lung carcinoma. Birth defects here are 80 percent above European averages, and researchers have found that breast cancer rates in the region were 47 percent above the national average.

Stories abound of rampant political corruption, the mafia’s involvement in the garbage business, and tens of billions of dollars of dirty money changing hands. There are even whispers of nuclear sludge being trucked in from Germany and dumped in makeshift landfills under buffalo grazing fields.

The cause of Campania region’s environmental damage and public health crisis is so disperse that it’s difficult to point fingers. There are the Italian politicians who, during northern Italy’s industrial boom in the 1980s and ’90s, looked the other way while internationally known carcinogenic chemicals were used …more

(1) Comments

Mass Incarceration vs. Rural Appalachia

Feds want to build a maximum-security prison on top of a former mountaintop removal mining site in eastern Kentucky

For all practical purposes the [Cumberland Plateau] has long constituted a colonial appendage of the industrial East and Middle West, rather than an integral part of the nation generally. The decades of exploitation have in large measure drained the region.
Harry M. Caudill, author, historian, lawyer, legislator, and environmentalist from Letcher County, in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky (May 3, 1922 – November 29, 1990)

 

The United States Bureau of Prisons is trying to build a new, massive maximum-security prison in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky — and there’s a growing movement to stop it.

a strip minePhoto by Universal Pops/FlickrA mountaintop removal mine in Wise County, Virginia. The federal Bureau of Prisons wants to build a prison over a similarliy strip-mined parcel of land in neighboring Kentucky which is still being drilled for gas, and which is located amid a habitat for dozens of endangered species.

The prison industry in the US has grown in leaps and bounds in the past 20 years— a new prison was built at an average rate of one every two weeks in the ’90s, almost entirely in rural communities. As of 2002, there were already more prisoners in this country than farmers. The industry seems like an unstoppable machine, plowing forward at breakneck speed on the path that made the world’s largest prison population.

Today, about 716 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison. Prisoners in nations across the world average at 155 per 100,000 people. And in the US, Southern states rule the chart. Viewing these states as countries themselves, Kentucky ranks at lucky number seven.

“Sounds terrible…” you may be thinking, “But what does it have to do with the environment?”

Well, this seemingly impenetrable multi-billion dollar bi-partisan government-driven industry does have a weak point: it’s a well-verified ecological mess. For a 10-year period of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Prison Initiative, prison after prison that the EPA’s inspected in the Mid-Atlantic region was plagued with violations. Violations included air and water pollution, inadequate hazardous waste management and failing spill control prevention for toxic materials.

From the initial breaking ground on construction in rural and wild places to the inevitable sewage problem from operating chronically over-populated facilities — running a prison is …more

(1) Comments

Fossil Fuels’ Days are Numbered, Thanks in Large Part to Economics: Lester Brown

In Review: The Great Transition

Lester R. Brown is well known for his sweeping assemblages of information to illustrate world trends, economic trends, and environmental trends.  His revelations are usually sobering, if not frightening.

But along comes The Great Transition, his newest look at world trends. Today, Brown is telling a different tale. What he sees, along with his co-writers, is a rather uplifting vision:  Fossil fuels are being replaced at an increasing pace by wind and solar energy.

Lester Brown Photo courtesy of Lannan FoundationBrown says the reason solar and wind energy are growing in use
around the world has a lot to do with the economics as well.

We know, of course, that fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — cause considerable environmental damage.  Smog causes or aggravates many human diseases such as lung disease and heart disease, contributing to tens of thousands of premature deaths annually. Getting fossil fuels out of the ground is dangerous and causes its own set of pollution problems: coal mine disasters, black lung disease, oil spills, chemical pollution of aquifers. Since all of the easy sources have already been exploited, fossil fuels are harder and therefore more expensive to find and extract today that in the past. BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is a clear example of the risk of pursuing what some have called “extreme energy.”  Finally, fossil fuels are causing an increase in planetary concentrations of carbon dioxide, resulting in global warming that threatens humans, the crops and water supplies we depend on, and natural habitats like never before.

You would think this is reason enough to move to sources of energy from wind and solar power.  But Brown says the reason solar and wind energy are growing in use around the world has a lot to do with the economics as well.  The cost of wind generators and solar cells are coming down, while the costs of finding and processing more fossil fuels is going up. 

Book Cover Photo courtesy of W. W, Norton & Co.

Brown notes that we are in a race with global warming trends.  “Can the world’s economies move to wind and solar fast enough to avoid crossing key thresholds that could cause climate change to spiral out of control?” he …more

(0) Comments

Older →

View Posts by Date View Posts by Author

Subscribe
Today

Four issues for just
$10 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!

 

0.1452