In Review: The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct
There are few spectacles of nature as fascinating as a long line of leafcutter arts marching along a well-beaten trail, each of them carrying a piece of a leaf many times their own size, making a tight and well ordered column of flashing green. As you would guess, there’s more happening in that scene that mere foraging. What you’re seeing is a highly choreographed common endeavor, one of the more complex biological organizations on the planet.
The subtitle of Bert Hölldobler and EO Wilson’s latest book on ants says it all: “civilization by instinct.” These two well known authorities on ants tell the story of the leafcutters in exacting detail, and in the process reveal how the line of troopers in the woods is nothing short of epic.
Hölldobler and Wilson received a Pulitzer Prize for their extensive 1990 book, The Ants. Their newest book, The Leafcutter Ants, is essentially an expanded chapter from that larger work. Thoroughly researched and well documented, the newer book is suitable for lay reading and experts alike. But the references tend to get in the way of the reading, and the wealth of Latin names used to describe the behavior of different species of leafcutter ants – found in both the New World and the Old World tropics and subtropics – can become a bit difficult to remember. Fortunately, the written descriptions of ant behavior and organization are bolstered by excellent black and white photographs and diagrams, as well as a handy glossary of terms. Overall, this is a book that is as captivating as the ant farm you might have spent hours watching as a kid.
The leaves the ants carrying are not, in turns out, their food. Rather, those bits of leaf are destined to be laid down and “farmed” as a growing bed for fungus, the ants’ principal food source. The leaves are transported to elaborate nests that stretch for many feet underground, with chamber upon chamber dedicated to this form of insect agriculture. The complexity of this process is mind-boggling, but it occurs without the intelligence we ascribe to such activity in “higher” animals and humans.
The book works through all aspects of the biology and behavior of leafcutter ants. Some species have more advanced organization than others. For example, one species not only …more
Oil and gas industry campaign contributions a bi-partisan affair
As fracking has made its way through several states, those concerned with its inherent dangers have vehemently voiced their opposition to the practice, but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. While communities across the country have pleaded for bans and long-term moratoriums on the practice, many state leaders have pushed forward with weak regulations, most of which have been created through consultation with industry. It’s obvious that industry, with its misleading promises relating to new jobs and improved local economies, has serious influence when it comes to state-level politics. But just how much influence do they have?
While it’s pretty evident that the oil and gas industry has long had strong support from within the Republican Party, what might not be obvious is how much financial support the industry has given to the Democrats, specifically to Democratic governors. As revealed in our new report, The Democratic Governors Association’s Dirty Energy Money, some of America’s biggest oil and gas companies have donated approximately $3,555,281 to the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) since 2008.
If you’ve been following fracking news closely over the past few years, you’ll be rather familiar with most of the key donors, which include the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, Dominion Resources, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Shell Oil, CONSOL Energy, Encana Oil & Gas, Chevron, Koch Industries, ConocoPhillips, Chesapeake and the American Gas Association. Most of these companies have much to gain from Maryland and New York if their governors help to approve fracking. And now it’s clear that the DGA has already gained quite a bit from the strong influence of the oil and gas industry.
With its campaign to keep America addicted to fossil fuels, the industry has recently turned to Maryland, where it has been infiltrating the political process in the Old Line State. Its goal is simple: to get Maryland’s leaders to approve fracking and begin granting drilling permits. Despite public opposition to fracking and concerns that more comprehensive study is needed before lifting the current moratorium, things have been moving rather quickly in Maryland.
Last April, the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, appointed by Gov. O’Malley, issued a draft report warning that fracking could have significant negative impacts in Maryland, echoing the concerns of many fracking …more
Species are disappearing before we even know what exactly they are
If you’re a regular reader of Earth Island Journal or other environmental news sites, you probably know that plant and animals species around the globe are going extinct at the fastest rate in human history. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, we are losing species at up to a thousand times the natural rate. Many experts now agree that Earth is heading for, or already experiencing, a mass extinction – the sixth in nearly half a billion years. The last mass extinction occurred about 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs, among the 76 percent of life forms at the time, were wiped out. Now, scientists believe, between 0.01 to 5 percent of the world’s species are lost every decade.
Flickr user John Fowler photo, CC lisence
The reasons are many: encroaching urban development, pollution, hunting and illegal trade, expanding invasive species, climate change, and in many cases a perfect storm of few of the above. To help bring attention to the extinction crisis, in 2002 the United Nations declared May 22 "The International Day for Biodiversity." The idea is to raise public awareness about how maintaining the planet’s biodiversity – the mosaic of creatures that makes up ecosystems – is essential.
Hopefully awareness will be raised, because there’s another associated problem confounding biologists: It appears many species could be gone before they were even known to science.
One of the less known aspects of the biodiversity crisis is the lack of scientific knowledge needed to even understand the extent of the problem. So far, researchers have documented about 1.5 million species. Every year nearly 18,000 more are added to the scientific corpus. But there’s still a long way to go, even in evaluating the knowledge gap itself. Estimates of the overall number of species on Earth range between two million and 100 million.
In short: We don’t know exactly how many species we share the planet with, so it’s difficult to know exactly how many we are losing.
The systematic classification of all species is done within the scientific field of taxonomy. Identifying and cataloguing species is key for a host of research and professional fields from medicine, to agriculture, to conservation. Taxonomists identify plants and animals, ascribe them to the appropriate hierarchic group (species, genus, family and …more
By asking Who is in control here? the sustainable food movement sets example for broader green movement
It’s an exciting time for the good food movement. Sometimes it can feel as though the efforts to make agriculture more sustainable are the most visible and active component of the broader environmental movement. This shouldn’t be surprising. Our relationship to food is visceral, emotional, and continues daily. Climate change, as important as it is, can feel abstract.
If you’ve seen Food Inc. or read any Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, or Rachel Carson, you know that the sustainable food movement is trying to address the social and environmental problems created by an industrial farming system in which convenience and profit trump everything else. The responses to industrial farming have included critiques like Silent Spring, the back-to-the-land and organic farming spark of the late 1960s, the family farm movement that resisted bankruptcy and corporate consolidation in the 1980s, and now the urban farming movement that has burgeoned during the past 10 years.
photo by Hals - Leandro Bierhals (Flickr CC)
Many elements of the sustainable food movement have been organized by (or organized for) the two most obvious sectors of the food system: eaters and producers. Generally food activism has revolved around those who grow the food and those who eat it. In parts of the world where populations are still largely agrarian, eaters and producers are often the same people, but here in the United States (where the farming population hovers around 1 percent) consumers have been the dominant focus of food policy, at least for the past 40 years.
In the global North, much of the past 20 years of activism has been framed by the concept of “food security”: that is, the right of all people to have enough food to avoid hunger and malnutrition. While this consumer-focused concept has its benefits, some people have found it lacking. There is, then, a new effort underway to deepen food activism and to focus it on a more radical idea: the concept of food sovereignty. The global food sovereignty movement is making the case that reform of the food system will be insufficient if it does not democratize and make more transparent the means of food production. In short: we’ll never be able to resolve the environmental and social abuses of industrial agriculture without changing who controls the food system.…more
Review of Wikileaks cables reveals effort to break down other nations' resistance to GMOs
by Suzanne Goldenberg
American diplomats lobbied aggressively overseas to promote genetically modified (GM) food crops such as soy beans, an analysis of official cable traffic revealed on Tuesday.
The review of more than 900 diplomatic cables by the campaign group Food and Water Watch showed a carefully crafted campaign to break down resistance to GM products in Europe and other countries, and so help promote the bottom line of big American agricultural businesses.
The cables, which first surfaced with the Wikileaks disclosures two years ago, described a series of separate public relations strategies, unrolled at dozens of press junkets and biotech conferences, aimed at convincing scientists, media, industry, farmers, elected officials and others of the safety and benefits of GM products.
The report offers a further glimpse of the power of the agricultural and biotech industries in America, after the supreme court came down on the side of Monsanto in its effort to enforce its patented GM soybeans.
Keith Weller, U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Wikimedia Commons
The court ruled on Monday that an Indiana farmer had to buy new seeds directly from Monsanto every time he planted the GM Roundup Ready soybeans.
The public relations effort unrolled by the State Department also ventured into legal terrain, according to the report. US officials stationed overseas opposed GM food labelling laws as well as rules blocking the import of GM foods.
The report notes that some of the lobbying effort had direct benefits. About 7% of the cables mentioned specific companies, and 6% mentioned Monsanto. "This corporate diplomacy was nearly twice as common as diplomatic efforts on food aid," the report said.
Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, said it was unsettling to see the State Department investing so much effort into promoting industry. "I'm especially concerned to see how much of the cables have to do with changing laws and regulations of many of those countries," she said. "Instead of focusing on security and promoting democracy, they are focusing on pressuring foreign governments."
In some instances, there was little pretence at hiding that resort to pressure – at least within US government circles. In a 2007 cable, released during the earlier Wikileaks disclosures, Craig Stapleton, a …more
Film Review: Bidder 70
Bidder 70 is a stand-up-and-cheer documentary about an activist who made waves while sitting down. Shortly before the Bush regime left office W. leased vast swathes of federally-owned pristine acreage to developers for drilling and mining — an exploitation of public property intended to enrich energy companies. But there was an unexpected fly in the ointment: Due to what this documentary indicates was a case of mistaken identity by the authorities, Tim DeChristopher managed to infiltrate the December 19, 2008 Bureau of Land Management Oil and Gas Lease Auction in Salt Lake City. Acting, he says, “on the spur of the moment,” the 27-year-old became “bidder 70,” proffering almost $2 million for 22,000 acres of wilderness in the red rock country near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
There was only one problem. Far from being an energy or mining industry representative, DeChristopher was a University of Utah economics student who did not have the money to lease the dozen or so parcels he successfully bid upon. But by doing so in an effort to save the public land from being developed and exploited, he gummed up the works of the auction process.
For “disrupting” the auction, DeChristopher was indicted on two felonies and faced up to 10 years behind bars plus an almost $1 million fine. After Obama moved into the White House his new Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, directed the BLM and Interior Department not to accept the bids for 77 parcels near environmentally sensitive land. But the charges against DeChristopher weren’t dropped.
Bidder 70 reveals how conscience, consciousness and peaceful civil disobedience remain powerful weapons in the arsenal of dissent. Award-winning veteran filmmakers Beth and George Gage use archival footage of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the anti-Vietnam War movement —- including shots of protesters burning draft cards — to vividly make this point.
The documentary follows DeChristopher’s growth as a world figure and the struggle to keep him from becoming a political prisoner, as activists, actors, and attorneys rallied around the environmentalist, who says onscreen that he took spontaneous action because: “It’s really hard for me not to think about climate change… It’s this big weight our generation is bearing on its shoulders.”