What If the Birds All Die?

 

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

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Sunset in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a science fiction writer. I’m thinking “what if” premises all the time. One that nags me is: What if the birds all die?

We might be closer to it than you think…

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Chickadee in Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birds. Kenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

The focus of the study wasn’t on extinction; these are still common species—just greatly diminished in numbers. This makes sense to me. My naturalist friend and I have both noticed how even the common house sparrow have declined in our neighbourhoods. My friend noticed fewer dashes of colour in the trees provided by yellow warblers in the past few years.

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Northern Cardinal (photo by Merridy Cox)

 

The Guardian reported that two thirds of the house sparrow population have disappeared in Europe. That’s close to 150 million birds. The article blamed changes in land use (destruction of habitat), coastal management (destruction of wetlands) and weather (including climate change). In another study, car exhaust was implicated in a 60% loss of common sparrow numbers from the mid 1990s.

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Unchecked deforestation. Unchecked use of toxic pesticides. Turning wetlands into parking lots. Climate change. We are destroying the integrity of ecosystems throughout this planet on a massive scale. And the birds are telling us…

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Baby Robin rests on a porch chair in Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

subTerrain 85 coverMy short story “Out of the Silence,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of subTerrain Literary Magazine (Issue 85), tells the story of Katherine, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of soundscape ecology.

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures—unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks—roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance…

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Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

RachelCarson-LindaLearIn her 1997 biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, historian and science biographer Linda Lear wrote:

Silent Spring, the product of [Carson’s] unrest, deliberately challenged the wisdom of a government that allowed toxic chemicals to be put into the environment before knowing the long-term consequences of their use. Writing in language that everyone could understand and cleverly using the public’s knowledge of atomic fallout as a reference point, Carson described how chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphorus insecticides altered the cellular processes of plants, animals, and, by implication, humans. Science and technology, she charged, had become the handmaidens of the chemical industry’s rush for profits and control of markets. Rather than protecting the public from potential harm, the government not only gave its approval to these new products but did so without establishing any mechanism of accountability. Carson questioned the moral right of government to leave its citizens unprotected from substances they could neither physically avoid nor publicly question. Such callous arrogance could end only in the destruction of the living world.

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life. And it’s making us sick too.

Bumble bee

Bumble bee at risk

In a 2012 article in the New York Times—exactly fifty years after Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962—Nancy F. Koehn tells us that, “[Rachel Carson] was a slight, soft-spoken woman who preferred walking the Maine shoreline to stalking the corridors of power. And yet Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, played a central role in starting the environmental movement, by forcing government and business to confront the dangers of pesticides.” Carson, writes Koehn, was an introverted scientist with a lyrical bent, who saw it as her mission to share her observations with a wider audience. Carson wrote Silent Spring while battling illness (including breast cancer) and caring for her young son. When the book was published, she faced an outburst of public reaction and strong backlash, primarily from chemical companies. Not unlike another female eco-hero (Greta Thunberg), Carson endured with dignity and deliberation the vulgar censure by opponents (virtually all men tied to corporate giants) who attacked her personally with vilifying stereotype. Men accused her of being disloyal and unscientific, and being a hysterical woman. One letter to the editor that the New Yorker saw fit to print read:

silent-spring-rachel carson“Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.”

Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wrote privately to former President Dwight Eisenhower that Carson was “probably a communist.”

Environment & Society Portal provides a revealing synopsis of the response by established patriarchy at the time:

Allegations that Carson was just a hysterical woman appeared both in the pages of chemical and agricultural trade journals as well as in the popular press. Women were imagined to be less rational, more emotional, and more sentimental than men, who could be relied upon to study the issues dispassionately and propose rational solutions. An agricultural expert told a reporter at the Ribicoff hearings, “You’re never going to satisfy organic farmers or emotional women in garden clubs” (Graham 1970, 88). In his letter to Eisenhower, Benson wondered why a “spinster was so worried about genetics” (Lear 1997, 429).

As Carson had no institutional affiliation, she was dismissed as an amateur who did not understand the subject like a professional scientist would, or who distorted or misread the science. To her critics, Carson’s frequent use of terms like “nature,” “natural,” and “balance of nature” identified her as a mere sentimental nature lover or a pantheist like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Reviews in TimeU.S. News and World Report, and even Sports Illustrated took her to task. The reviewer in Time, for example, criticized her “emotion-fanning words” and characterized her argument as “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” He traced her “emotional and inaccurate outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature” (Brooks 1989, 297).

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American Robin (photo by Merridy Cox)

Even inoffensive public portraits of Carson showed her in more domestic rather than scientific settings. Life magazine published a story about her accompanied by photos of her talking with children while on a nature walk or watching birds with a group of Audubon Society members. Dressed like a housewife and surrounded by children and “bird people,” Carson projected an image of a teacher or stay-at-home mother, although the picture on the first page of the article showed her at a microscope. Carson, said the story, “is unmarried but not a feminist (‘I’m not interested in things done by women or by men but in things done by people’)”

According to historian and biographer Linda Lear, “the industry spent a quarter of a million dollars to discredit her research and malign her character. In the end, the worst they could say was that she had told only one side of the story and had based her argument on unverifiable case studies.” According to Lear, “Carson was an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment, first because she was a woman but also because her chosen field, biology, was held in low esteem in the nuclear age. Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice. She deliberately wrote for the public rather than for a narrow scientific audience. For anyone else, such independence would have been an enormous detriment. But by the time Silent Spring was published, Carson’s outsider status had become a distinct advantage. As the science establishment would discover, it was impossible to dismiss her.”

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House Sparrow (photo by Merridy Cox)

Not unlike Greta, Rachel and the message in her book exerted a great impact on the environmental movement. Silent Spring became a rallying focus for a new social movement in the 1960s, which endures to the present day.

According to Lear:

“Carson’s concept of the ecology of the human body was a major departure in our thinking about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. It had enormous consequences for our understanding of human health as well as our attitudes toward environmental risk. Silent Spring proved that our bodies are not boundaries. Chemical corruption of the globe affects us from conception to death. Like the rest of nature, we are vulnerable to pesticides; we too are permeable. All forms of life are more alike than different.

“Carson believed that human health would ultimately reflect the environment’s ills. Inevitably this idea has changed our response to nature, to science, and to the technologies that devise and deliver contamination. Although the scientific community has been slow to acknowledge this aspect of Carson’s work, her concept of the ecology of the human body may well prove to be one of her most lasting contributions.”

Bernie Krause Florida

Bernie Krause

In the meantime, alarming signals suggest that Rachel Carson’s 1962 warning is currently underway. The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

“Man’s war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”—Rachel Carson

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

 

Why Women Will Save the Planet

I was recently told I was fear-mongering and missing the facts by a person on Facebook when I revealed the environmental dangers of using (and abusing) single-use plastics (specifically Styrofoam); earlier that day a gentleman called me an anarchist after I promoted individual responsibility over government and corporate responsibility on the issue of bottled water in Canada.

At the time, these accusations upset me—I’m a scientist, after all, and truth is #1. Then I realised that they were part of my journey toward activism to save this planet and humanity along with it. It was, in fact, a good day for me. I did have the facts; and they were scary. And, in revealing them and expressing my opinions, I had succeeded in breaking people’s inertia and had challenged them to think outside their comfort zone.  I had created fear in them and I had created anarchy in their ordered world. This promted a strong defensive response. The more intense their defence, the more I’d upset their comfortable inertia. That is what happens when you break through a hegemony or dogma and challenge people to re-evaluate and change their actions or habits—essentially forcing them out of their complacency and bringing it back to personal responsibility.

In both cases, I’d brought it back to personal responsibility and personal action. Too many of us settle for a narrative in which others—often not clearly identified—are responsible–not us.

So, perhaps I am inciting fear. Fear in those who have become or choose to remain too complacent. Good; we are in a planetary and existential crisis. And perhaps I am rather an anarchist; disrupting a system and self-belief that is entrenched and not sustainable.

But that comes at a price.

Greta Thunberg raincoat

Greta Thunberg begins a wave of climate activism

I’m thinking of young climate activist Greta Thunberg, who recently captured the attention of the world in her brave sail across the Atlantic to attend the UN’s Climate Summit and other meetings in the US in addition to her climate strike and rally march in Montreal, Canada, which drew close to half a million people (old and young).

Greta Thunberg Sails Carbon-neutral  Yacht To New York

Greta Thunberg

Earlier, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Greta delivered her now iconic speech:

“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope,” Thunberg said, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

In a recent poll, one out of three Germans said that Thunberg has changed their views on climate change. But that, too, has come at a price.

A tsunami of rage and shameless vitriol was unleashed by conservative men (many with close ties to the fossil fuel profit machine) at this young and brave girl during her 15-day trip across the Atlantic. Their attacks have grown increasingly more personal and vulgar as she has gained world attention. For example, political scientist, economist and climate “skeptic” Bjorn Lomborg (associated with the Heartland Institute and Competitive Enterprise Institute) repeatedly mocked and criticized the 16-year old activist. Using highly inappropriate and unprofessional language (the worst I won’t repeat here), he and others have accused her of being a “puppet”, “naïve”, “unrealistic”, and a “fanatic.” Others like Australian columnist Andrew Bolt have personally attacked Thunberg with reprehensible and boorish remarks about her age and mental health.

Lobbyists Against Greta

oil-profit lobbyists behind shameless vitriol against Greta Thunberg (from Desmog UK)

Andrew Mitrovica’s Opinion piece entitled “Who Is Afraid of Greta Thunberg?” provides eloquent summary: “Of course, the marauding swarm of vitriolic right-wing climate-change deniers see Thunberg—not how the prophetic Zinn envisioned her—but as a tiny, pretentious zealot who threatens the existing order. Their order. Their comforts. Their traditional ‘way of life’.”

Greta—who wears a windbreaker that reads “Unite Behind the Science”— responded in a brave and wonderful tweet:

GretaThunberg-Tweet

Her tweet was followed immediately by one by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

 

AlexandriaOcasio-Cortez Tweet

This follows a recent finding by researchers that 99% of Republicans are science illiterate and 44% believe that the scientific method can be used to produce any conclusion the researcher wants. Of course the whole point of the scientific method is to prevent this.

Soon after, Martin Gelin wrote an article entitled, “The Misogyny of Climate Deniers” in the August 2019 issue of The New Republic. The subtitle reads: “Why do right-wing men hate Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez so much? Researchers have some troubling answers to that question.”

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Greta Thunberg sailing to New York

Gelin writes, “On [Thunberg’s] first day of sailing, a multi-millionaire Brexit activist (Arron Banks) tweeted that he wished a freak accident would destroy her boat. A conservative Australian columnist (Andrew Bolt) called her a ‘deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement,’ while the British far-right activist David Vance attacked the ‘sheer petulance of this arrogant child.’ … Former Trump staffer Steve Milloy recently called Thunberg a ‘teenage puppet,’ and claimed that ‘the world laughs at this Greta charade,’ while a widely shared far-right meme showed Trump tipping The Statue of Liberty to crush her boat.”

Fierce and undeterred by cohorts of grown human males unable to deal with her, Greta Thunberg gave a scorching speech at the United Nations during her visit to America: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she admonished a crowd of world leaders. “How dare you.” Her equally scorching look of Donald Trump who rudely ignored her to mumble some nonsense to the press, has become a popular meme. The mashup by Fatboy Slim of Greta Thunberg’s UN speech “Right here, right now” went viral on YouTube.

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Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump at the UN climate summit

Of course, this was followed by utterly shameless and cruel vulgarisms by adult bullies that included suggestions to punish her and give her a spanking.

Disinterested in whether she’s liked and undeterred by childish name calling, the activist teenager remained resolute with her weapon: shame.  At every opportunity, Greta Thunberg steadfastly called out adults over twenty years her senior on what they have failed to do; she did it in words that are simple, precise and direct.

After Senator Tom Carper tried to placate her by telling her that young people would soon have the chance to run for office themselves, she returned: “We don’t want to become politicians; we don’t want to run for office. We want you to unite behind the science.”

Carrying herself with admirable focus and buoyed by her dedication to her cause, Greta Thunberg delivered a scintillating speech to close to half a million climate marchers in Montreal:

“Some would say we are wasting lesson time; we say we are changing the world… The people have spoken. And we will continue to speak until our leaders listen and act. We are the change and change is coming.”

greta thunberg speech in montreal

Greta Thunberg speaking in Montreal

In a recent article in the Washington Post, entitled “Greta Thunberg Weaponized Shame in an Era of Shamelessness”, Monica Hesse writes: “We live in an era that has become impervious to shame. An era defined by a president who views it as a weakness. Shame has become an antiquated emotion and a useless one. It’s advantageous, we’ve learned, to respond to charges of indecency with more indecency: attacks, misdirection, faux-victimhood.”

But real shaming—the kind that mothers do with their errant boy-bullies—is precisely what Greta is doing. This kind of shaming cuts deep, because it is the deep and recognizable truth. And it is done through the “mother archetype”—the most powerful energy on this planet.

Gelin tells us that the prominently older white men who are leading these attacks on Greta Thunberg (and by association, other prominent female climate activists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) “is consistent with a growing body of research linking gender reactionaries to climate-denialism.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Scientists Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman in the journal NORMA  analyzed the language of a focus group of climate skeptics, to discover a major theme:

“for climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.”

On the heels of the #MeToo movement, climate activism—largely led by strong females—appears to threaten gender identity of conservative males. Right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism appear inextricably linked. I would add that their lack of respect for and acknowledgement of indigenous peoples is by default part of the package, given that indigenous peoples are so tied to the land and the ecosystem (being destroyed). One need only look to what is currently happening in Brazil for an atrocious example of this kind of male-bully behaviour.

Climate science for skeptics becomes feminized and viewed as “oppositional to assumed entitlements of masculine primacy,” write Hultman and Paul Pule in the 2019 book “Climate Hazards, Disasters, and Gender Ramifications.” Hultman identifies a set of values and behaviours connected to a form of masculinity identified with industrial patriarchy. These males “see the world as separated between humans and nature. They believe humans are obliged to use nature and its resources to make products out of them. And they have a risk perception that nature will tolerate all types of waste. It’s a risk perception that doesn’t think of nature as vulnerable and as something that is possible to be destroyed. For them, economic growth is more important than the environment,” which they choose not to understand—just like women.

The gender gap in the United States is characterized by men who perceive climate activism as inherently feminine. This was demonstrated in a 2017 article in Scientific American entitled, “Men Resist Green Behavior as Unmanly.”  Researchers Aaron R. Brough and James E.B. Wilkie argue that “women have long surpassed men in the arena of environmental action; across age groups and countries, females tend to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Compared to men, women litter less, recycle more, and leave a smaller carbon footprint.” While some researchers have demonstrated that women’s prioritization of altruism may help explain this gender gap in green behaviour, the research done by Brough and Wilkie’s—involving more than 2,000 American and Chinese participants— showed that men linked eco-friendliness with femininity and a risk to their masculinity. These findings, coupled with a natural inclination for anti-feminism by older white conservative males, places them at the centre of a major reactionary backlash against climate action.

Gelin ends on a sober note: “As conservative parties become increasingly tied to nationalism, and misogynist rhetoric dominates the far-right, Hultman and his fellow researchers at Chalmers University worry that the ties between climate skeptics and misogyny will strengthen. What was once a practical problem, with general agreement on the facts, has become a matter of identity. And fear of change is powerful motivation.”

Nina-Kevin playing

Nina Munteanu hiking with her son

When fear powers motivation, we must counter with something stronger: hope through action, compassion, and community. And, again, women are in great abundance of these.

“Keep inspiring and organizing,” says Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to young Greta. “We’re going to save the planet. All of us, together.”

We are all, after all, “the mother.” So, while the old guard of conservative immature men obsess in saving their egos and identities in this crisis, and put up walls of vitriol, name-calling, “flaming”, and “trolling,” it’s up to us, mature women, to really save the planet, the mother of us all.

So, why will women save the planet? Because “Mother Knows Best,” after all…

Time for a paradigm shift. We’re not in the fifties anymore…

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.