Posts Tagged ‘habitat destruction’

Collapse by Jared Diamond. Viking Penguin, 2005.

I first read Collapse a few years ago and was impressed with Diamond’s examination of the collapse of societies. Diamond defines collapse as the drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time. His topic is broad. He considers past societies such as that of Easter Island, the Anasazi, Maya, and the Vikings in the new world. Each of these societies once enjoyed prosperity and wealth and left behind ruins that we still marvel at. It has been suspected that each of these mysterious ends were triggered at least in part by environmental problems, a sort of unintended ecological suicide. Diamond argues that past societies are united by the same economic and environmental challenges facing modern civilizations today and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril.

From past societies he moves into the present day for a look at Rwanda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, China and Australia. It was his discussion of Haiti that caused me to pick the book up again recently, as Haiti has dominated news media following the recent earthquake disaster. While the earthquake was the cause of a terrible tragedy, grinding poverty has been central to Haiti’s story for centuries. Diamond provides a useful thumbnail sketch of Haiti’s history. He looks at factors that have contributed to its poverty and compares the situation in Haiti with that in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Diamond concludes that there are twelve serious environmental problems that challenge societies, past and present. Number one is the destruction of natural habitats, including deforestation. Deforestation was often the most important factor in the decline of all of the past societies described in his book. Today, we are destroying natural habitats at an accelerating rate, cutting down forests and replacing natural landscapes with human-manufactured ones: ciites, golf courses, roads, farmland and more.

Other factors Diamond discusses include the destruction of wild food sources through overharvesting (fishing); loss of diversity through species extinction; soil erosion and infertility; shortages of freshwater and more. He then goes on to look at the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of a set of obstructions routinely set out to block effective action: Technology will solve all our problems; If we run out of one resource, we’ll replace it with another, etc.

Diamond’s writing is clear and enjoyable to read. His arguments are well-constructed, thoroughly documented and convincing. Collapse is a thoughtful overview of environmental issues facing people today, well worth reading. One of my favorite lines in the book relates to Easter Islanders who cut down all the trees on their island, thus depriving themselves of firewood or any way to build boats in which to catch the fish they fed themselves with. Diamond writes:

What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology wil solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or: We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”?

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Silence of the Songbirds: How We Are Losing the World’s Songbirds and What We Can Do to Save Them, by Bridget Stutchbury. HarperCollins, 2007.

Every fall, we northern dwellers are accustomed to “our” birds leaving our cold, snowy winter behind and flying south. This seems like a very sensible thing to do, and if we think of them at all, it is probably to imagine the birds on vacation, soaking up the rays in the Neotropics. Far from being on holiday, birds that migrate south face a difficult season. They must compete with other birds for habitat that will keep them fed and allow them to build up the reserves they will need for the flight north and a new breeding season. Increasingly, their lives are imperiled by the destruction of the rainforest as more and more trees are replaced with agricultural fields. Other threats include the heavy use of pesticides that can result in mass poisonings. When they return north with the spring, life is no easier, with widespread habitat loss, cats, windows, lights, towers, and other disasters-in-waiting ready to take their toll.

Birds are amazing creatures, little more, it would seem, than sparks of life wrapped in feathers. What incredible lives they live! However, the ever-increasing challenges that songbirds must face, both in the north and the south, are causing a slow but steady decline in songbird populations across the continent. In the last 3 to 4 decades, the songbird population has fallen by a horrifying 20 to 30%. Songbirds are a vital part of the ecosystem. They perform irreplaceable services that we humans count on, from insect control to spreading plant seeds. The fading away of the songbird population is a symptom of the deep wound we have inflicted on the natural world. If they go, will we be next?

Bridget Stutchbury is a professor of biology at York University in Toronto, and a fellow and research associate at the Smithsonian Institute. She and her husband have devoted their careers to the study of songbirds. In Silence of the Songbirds, Stutchbury takes the reader with her as she looks at songbirds in their winter homes. She explains the science behind songbird studies and tools such as the Breeding Bird Survey. She examines the many threats that songbirds face. Finally, she offers the reader a list of solutions, how everyone can contribute to halting the decline of songbird populations. Anyone who has ever looked for the first robin of spring or enjoyed the sound of a bird singing in the yard will want to read this book. Understanding the problem is the first step in finding solutions.

How To Save A Songbird

Buy shade-grown coffee that is both organic and fairly-traded.

Buy organic produce

Avoid non-organic North American crops such as alfalfa, Brussel sprouts,blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes and wheat.

Buy unbleached, recycled paper products

Turn off the lights at night in city buildings and homes during peak migration periods

Keep your cat indoors

For more on these issues, see these posts:

Every Cat an Indoor Cat

Natural Born Killers

Organic Food is For the Birds

Climate Change and the Boreal Forest

Shade the Coffee, Shelter the Birds

For more on the use of pesticides on potatoes in North America, see Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, reviewed on November 23.


Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) catching insects on the wing.

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