Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

06 February, 2006

Getting All Biologically Diverse

A couple weeks ago, I got the chance to see and hear E.O. Wilson speak at the Union Theater. Before I comment on him and his speech, I want to go on a mini-rant.

I went to pick up the free tickets one day during my lunch break a couple days beforehand. Entering the Union at the main entrance on the east side, I had to walk to the other side of the building to get to the box office. Now, is it me or is the Union slowly turning into a fucking mall? The main area by the entry has the magazine stand, ATMs, a food stand, etc. and it had all been remodeled to look like a friggin' mall. Instead of trying to go with the dark, Teutonic stone drinking hall look, there was wood paneling and all this crap which didn't fit. What's wrong with maintaining the stone & solid wood interior? Maybe if the university spent less on treating the football players like demigods, they could stop ruining the hallowed Union.

Anyway, The Dulcinea's mom was just a tad late in arriving to be babysitter but we got there in time. We got to the lobby and looked around for Christopher but didn't see him. So I called Marv to get his cell phone number. As I was speaking to him, one of my favorite baristas, Leah, ambled by. I hung up and started dialing Chris when he suddenly appeared out of nowhere. And so we headed to the theater. Holy fuck! The line was a mile long. It was like a goddamn Shackletonian odyssey to find the end of it but we found it all right. Ticket holders were then seated and we ended up in the nosebleed seats. Still, I couldn't complain.

I've only read Wilson's Consilience and knew of the shit storm he caused with his ideas on sociobiology. But the night ended up being more in line with his area of specialty, entomology – biodiversity. He prefaced his lecture as being "Biodiversity 101" and indeed it was. There were a lot of facts and figures thrown out about the number of species on our lovely blue-green orb as well as the number of them being driven to extinction by our activities. Surely everyone is familiar with the apocalyptic declarations about the loss of rain forests. Well, we got a load of that and more. But Wilson was very hopeful and didn't think we as a species had crossed some kind of point of no return. I found it immensely interesting to hear about other life besides we humans. Being his specialty, he glossed over various types of ants including the honey ant with its succulent nectar. He also spent a fair amount of time discussing the great diversity of life in the canopies of trees in the rain forests. Slides were shown of people scaling the enormous trees and he jokingly remarked that it was a good use of graduate students. There were also slides of those huge construction cranes which are being propped up in the rain forests so scientists can better study life up in the foliage. It was indeed a tremendously interesting lecture for me as my formal education in biology is limited to a couple high school courses and Biology 101 in college.

My real critique of the whole thing was that he never fully explained why biodiversity was good, to my mind at least. I recall him giving a moral argument which was, in its most distilled form, that it is morally right to respect non-human forms of life. While he and I have some basic agreement here, I was hoping for a more pragmatic explanation as well. I mean, I wasn't expecting a laundry list of apocalyptic predictions as a result of replacing forests with strip malls but I was hoping to hear about the consequences. How does deforestation affect the climate? Does biodiversity have an effect on global warming? Unfortunately, I don't recall him really addressing this side of things.

The question & answer session that followed the lecture was quite interesting despite a vegetarian going off on a rant and asking nary a question. (More on her later.) One of the questions posed to Wilson was whether or not he was in favor of genetically altered crops & foods. I highly suspect that most of the audience was against it and I also suspect that most of these people were against it mostly the grounds that it's "unnatural". He began his answer by saying that he had investigated genetically modified crops and, to his mind, there was only the slightest chance of some kind of Frankenstein strain of plant resulting. You could almost hear the audience groan with disappointment that he didn't come out fervently against them. Wilson went on to say that he thought they held promise in feeding people who lived in areas that desperately needed the benefits the crops could bring. I've engaged in conversations with people about this issue and it was the case that most people against genetically engineered foods seemed to be so not out of any evidence but rather out of technophobia. Of course, these same people have no qualms with cell phones, televisions, computers, cars, et al but, when it came to food, suddenly technology was evil. I hate to tell these people but humans have been genetically modifying the plants and animals we eat for thousands of years. I'd bet that most of the vegetables you find in your grocery store are the results of man meddling in plant genetics. Carrots, for instance, were more like a turnip back in the day and were not orange but rather white, yellow, red, green, and black. Moving proteins around is the same whether it's done in a lab or in a field.

Now back to the ranting vegetarian. Now, I'll agree with her that reducing consumption of meat or eliminating it altogether from one's diet is a good thing. But she went on and on about vegetarianism being a cure-all and it got tiresome. But she ended, if I remember correctly, on a political note. She remarked on a forthcoming election. Apparently every April, there's an election for two delegates per county for an unspecified position which is held by five people. The flyer she handed out afterwards basically says that hunters and businesses rule the DNR and are evil. The flyer also states lists this bullet point:

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) deliberate exclusion (sic) of the non-hunting majority public from knowledge of the vote and election and its importance in setting policy

While the DNR may in fact be doing nothing to publicize this election, the flyer says absolutely nothing about the positions to be filled. No title, no responsibilities - nothing at all except that there's five per county and a vague notion of policy setting. If anyone is interested in learning more about this woman's cause, email madravenspeak@aol.com or call 608.981.2287 at The Sacred Bear Art and Nature Academy. A Google search on this turned up nothing about this organization. However, a Google search about the election did. It is the DNR Spring Wildlife & Fisheries Rules Hearing and Conservation Congress County Meeting. There's a mouthful for ya. Here's the description:

On Monday, April 10, there will be 72 public hearings, one in each county starting at 7:00 p.m. where residents interested with natural resources management have an opportunity to provide their input by non-binding vote and testimony to the Department of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Board and the Conservation Congress on proposed fishing and hunting rule changes, Natural Resource Board and Conservation Congress advisory questions through the questionnaire.

County residents have the option to run for election to the Conservation Congress and to elect delegates from their county to represent their county views regarding natural resources on the Conservation Congress. Also, residents have the opportunity to bring forth new conservation issues of a statewide nature to the attention of the Conservation Congress through the resolution process.


Now, considering the notice was on the DNR webpage and not at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard", I'm skeptical of the claims that the evil DNR tried to exclude the non-hunting majority public. While I have no statistical data to back up my assertion, I will opine that the reason most folks don't know about this congress is that most people can't be bothered to look into such matters lest they have to get up off the sofa and go somewhere where the television is out of view. Madison may be a city, but it's not that big. There's hardly a spot here where a 15-minute drive can't get you out in a wooded area outside of town. I've met many a Madisonian who finds the idea of going camping totally repugnant and understands wilderness as this nebulous concept as being a place that is somewhere else, namely, between Madison and Milwaukee, Minneapolis & Chicago.

So there ya go. A call to preserve Wisconsin's biodiversity. For Dane county folks, the congress is at the Alliant Energy Center here in Madtown. Check the DNR page for your county if you're not from Dane.
|| Palmer, 8:45 PM

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