Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Scales Fall

by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is shaped like a child’s idea of a fish, with a pointy snout, two dorsal fins, and a rounded belly that gradually tapers toward the back. It is gunmetal blue on top, and silvery on the underside, and its tail looks like a sickle. The Atlantic bluefin is one of the fastest swimmers in the sea, reaching speeds of fifty-five miles an hour. This is an achievement that scientists have sought to understand but have never quite mastered; a robo-tuna, built by a team of engineers at M.I.T., was unable to outswim a real one. (The word “tuna” is derived from the Greek thuno, meaning “to rush.”) Atlantic bluefins are voracious carnivores—they feed on squid, crustaceans, and other fish—and can grow to be fifteen feet long.

At one time, Atlantic bluefins were common from the coast of Maine to the Black Sea, and from Norway to Brazil. In the Mediterranean, they have been prized for millennia—in an ode from the second century, the poet Oppian describes the Romans catching bluefins in “nets arranged like a city”—but they are unusually bloody fish, and in most of the rest of the world there was little market for them. (Among English speakers, they were long known as “horse mackerel.”) As recently as the late nineteen-sixties, bluefin in the United States sold for only a few pennies a pound, if there were any buyers, and frequently ended up being ground into cat food. Then, in the nineteen-seventies, the Japanese developed a taste for sushi made with bluefin, or hon-maguro. This new preference, it’s been hypothesized, arose from their exposure, following the Second World War, to American-style fatty foods. The taste for hon-maguro was, in turn, imported back to the U.S. Soon, fishing for bluefin became so lucrative that the sale of a single animal could feed a family for a year. (Earlier this year, a five-hundred-pound Pacific bluefin went for an astonishing three hundred and forty dollars a pound at a Tokyo fish auction.) First, the big bluefins were fished out, then the smaller ones, too, became hard to find. Tuna “ranching,” a practice by which the fish are herded into huge circular nets and fattened up before slaughter, was for a time seen as a solution until it was shown to be part of the problem: as fewer bluefins were allowed to reach spawning age, there were fewer and fewer new fish to fatten.

Bluefin catches are managed—the word is used here loosely—by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The commission, known by the acronym ICCAT—pronounced “eye-cat”—is based in Madrid, and its members include the U.S., the European Union, Japan, Canada, and Brazil. In 2008, ICCAT scientists recommended that the bluefin catch in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean be limited to between eighty-five hundred and fifteen thousand tons. ICCAT instead adopted a quota of twenty-two thousand tons. That same year, a panel of independent reviewers, hired by the commission to assess its performance, observed that ICCAT “is widely regarded as an international disgrace.” (Carl Safina, the noted marine conservationist, has nicknamed the group the International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas.) By most estimates, bluefin stocks have fallen by eighty per cent in the past forty years. According to other assessments, the situation is even grimmer. Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at England’s University of York, has calculated that there is now only one bluefin left for every fifty that were swimming in the Atlantic in 1940.

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Use Less Plastic


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Yellowstone National Park

resides on another planet. and it’s wonderful.
part i in a series of iii.

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by Hendrik Herzberg

The Disney Channel showed “Ratatouille” last night, as if in rebuke to the New York City Health Department’s recent decision to humiliate restaurants that value taste over tidiness by forcing them to post letter grades evaluating them for cleanliness—a fine quality no doubt, but one whose traditional place next to godliness might be better occupied by gastronomy.

What with so many awful things happening as we sink into the twenty-tens (global heating, murderous fundamentalisms, chronic warfare, Tea Partisanship, poisoned oceans, media “platforms” that function as scaffolds for journalism), that delicious movie is a reminder of one of the consolations of twenty-first-century American life: the ever-expanding culture of good food and good cooking.

Foodism, as it might be called, won’t cure any global disasters, and its direct beneficiaries are mostly the relatively privileged and comparatively well-educated—the sort of people who shop at Whole Foods, support farmers’ markets, and patronize restaurants that have “executive chefs.” But the benefits have trickled down, as a visit to any midrange chain supermarket will confirm. Compared to the Grand Unions and A&P’s of a generation or two ago, the ShopRites and Safeways of today are a gourmet’s paradise. And at McDonald’s you can now get a salad with that. Let us count our blessings while we can.

By the way, I don’t actually object to the Health Department’s move. Yes, Homo sapiens and Rattus norvegicus have lived together for a long time, and if we ever succeed in getting rid of them entirely we might discover to our regret that in some unforeseen way they had been a vital link in the ecology of urban life. Nevertheless, and “Ratatouille” notwithstanding, it’s probably a good idea to discourage rodents from frequenting restaurant kitchens. Cleanliness in general is a good thing, too, as long as it’s not taken to extremes. (If it weren’t for “germs,” i.e., bacteria, we wouldn’t have cheese.) The evidence is clear: in Los Angeles, which has been rating restaurants for cleanliness since 1998, substantially fewer people end up in the hospital after a nice dinner out.

Like Mayor Bloomberg’s trans-fats bans, smoking bans, and posted calorie counts, awarding A’s, B’s, and C’s for hygiene is an emanation of the liberal Nanny State so scorned by libertarians and conservatives—who, it seems, would prefer a Neglectful/Abusive Parent State and a Tyrannical Stepfather State, respectively. Don’t they know that nanny knows best, and is nicer besides? If the candidates in the next mayoral election are Mary Poppins (Dem.-W.F.P.), Pap Finn (Libertarian), and Mr. Murdstone (Rep.-Cons.), I’m voting for the carpetbagger with the umbrella. Spit spot! ♦

The New Yorker / Good Stuff / Published: July 13, 2010

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Quote of the Day

We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon. -Konrad Adenauer

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In The Womb

Amazing. Series from National Geographic here.

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How to Be a Climate Hero

by Audrey Schulman

ONE AFTERNOON last summer, I was on a commuter train when I heard someone yelling behind me. I didn’t pay attention because I was breaking up a fight between my kids. But the third time the person yelled, I turned around.

It was a boy, about six years old. He was standing on his seat screaming, “My mom’s having a seizure!” The only part of his mom I could see were her legs, sticking out into the aisle, convulsing. And arrayed around the train car were forty other people, mouths open. Not one of them doing a thing.

Humans tend to freeze like this—the Bystander Effect, it’s called. It was first demonstrated in a famous psychology experiment by John Darley and Bibb Latané in which the subject was asked to fill out some forms. He or she assumed these forms were preparatory to the experiment, but the experiment had already begun. While the person circled multiple-choice answers, smoke began to sneak out of a vent in the room. Thick, gray smoke. The kind that says fire. The experimenter then timed how long it took for the subject to leave the room.

The only variable was whether there were other people in the room. These people pretended to be subjects also, but actually they were actors paid by the experimenter to stay there, heads down, pencils working, ignoring the smoke. If the subject was alone in the room, 75 percent of the time she or he would leave inside of a minute. But if there were others in the room working away on their forms, the subject would stay there with them—90 percent of the time. Stay there filling out forms until the smoke was too thick to see through. Until, if there had been a fire, it would have been licking at the walls.

In the decades since that first experiment, it’s been repeated with many variations on the type of emergency: staged robberies, lost wallets, people in hallways crying for help, etc. Every time, if there was more than one person witnessing the event, all of them were almost certain to do nothing.

So the boy on the train was loudly identifying this as a true emergency, his mother physically demonstrating the urgency of the matter. Still everyone sat there, mouths open. Half of them had cell phones, but not one of them was dialing 9-1-1. Remember this fact: although we feel safer in a crowd, that’s actually where humans are most incapacitated. The bigger the crowd, the stronger the effect.

Right now everyone understands that something truly horrible is happening to the planet’s climate. The heat waves and forest fires, the floods and droughts. But there are 6 billion of us now—quite the Bystander Effect. So we stay in our seats filling out forms, trying to ignore the smoke swirling thicker around us. We bustle about our normal lives, assuming it can’t be as bad as it seems because surely, then, everyone would be marching in the street about it.

On the train with the epileptic mother, I stepped forward, yelling out, “Someone call 9-1-1! Someone get the conductor!” I knew about the Bystander Effect, had studied it in school, and knowing about the effect, it turns out, inoculates you against it.

Before I moved, everyone’s faces had been contorted with terror—as though they were the ones having the seizure, or as though this woman thrashing around like a dying fish might be about to start biting their ankles. But from the moment I stepped forward, telling them what to do, the fear in their faces melted away. Two other people stood up to help. Four others whipped out their cell phones to call 9-1-1. One person ran for the conductor. They just needed someone to break the group cohesion and start the action.

A few years ago, when my first child was born, I became paralyzed with fear about climate disruption. It was so clear that our children would be punished for what we adults were doing to the world. I got depressed. I got anxious. Then, from sheer desperation, I started writing letters to editors. I remember well the first one that got published. It was in the Boston Globe, and it supported building Cape Wind, the large wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound. The head of Cape Wind called me up personally to thank me. The thrill I got. The sense of agency.

After that I was out of my seat. I believed there was a safe room I could try to get to if I moved super quick. Now I go to every demonstration. I write to every politician.

I insulate my house fanatically. I don’t own a car. Every year I do a little more: composting kitchen waste, shopping at farmers’ markets, recycling, buying only secondhand. Using carbon calculators, I’ve figured that I’ve lowered my family’s emissions 50 percent in seven years. That’s a big step. Because of my actions, my fear for my children’s future is not incapacitating. I’m striding down the aisle trying to help. Not only have I improved my emotional state, I’ve broken group cohesion and started to pull others from their seats. I’ve gotten friends and relatives to insulate more and drive less, to admit the problem and start thinking about the solution.

Scientists tell us we have ten years, if that, to make significant changes. Every indication, from ice caps to defrosting tundra, seems to show this is the tipping point. This is our moment. Perhaps you never thought you’d get a chance to play hero. Here it is. The kid on the train is screaming out for help. The weather is convulsing. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t sure what to do. Make your best guess. Call 9-1-1. For god’s sake, get the conductor.

Orion Magazine / Climate Activism / Published: May/June 2008

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