Here’s a summary: Artificial intelligence has been imagined as powerful, intelligent, and autonomous (independent of human prejudices, power relations, etc.). While it is definitely powerful, it is neither intelligent nor autonomous. Benevolent use of AI calls for critical, socially engaged intelligence on the part of both technologists and ordinary citizens.
The Wellfleet Conservation Trust has been very active recently, securing land for conservation, guiding walks, and building trails for anyone to enjoy. Their website gives a good idea of their many projects. As you can see from the map on that site, the WCT land complements that of several other organizations, making a wide variety of environments available for protection of plant and animal life and preservation of the fragile land, as well as helping the people have healthier lives in every sense of that word.
I was fortunate to get to assist with some of the trail clearing, including at the recently established Walker trail. The site is nearby, one that we can visit on the way to swim in local ponds or after a trip to the transfer station.
The trail runs through land donated by the Walker family. It’s short, but surprisingly varied, with some ups and downs, views of a few houses, and a small pond. Making the trail included installing some benches and rustic steps for the steeper portions. There was also a major project to remove a large dead branch that was hanging over the trail. Members of the WCT, young workers from the two Wellfleet residences for the AmeriCorps Cape Cod program, and other volunteers all contributed to the effort.
The WCT mission is “to assist and promote the preservation of open spaces and natural resources and to protect the rural character of the town of Wellfleet…The Trust acquires land by gift or purchase…develops walking trails and encourages the study and implementation of sound environmental practices.”
Click on any of the photos to enlarge them.
The current habitat for communication between science and the public is dysfunctional. One need only look at the “debates” about climate change or disease prevention to see the problem.
Scientific findings are regularly misrepresented and sensationalized in the mass and social media. Even when well presented, those findings are ignored or distorted, attacked through faulty arguments, or tied to unsupported inferences. At its best, current science/public dialogue tends to be one-way, with the occasional enlightening article, book, or video, followed by public commentary. This rarely serves to deepen understanding, much less lead to enhanced inquiry.
State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference
The 10th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference held yesterday at the Wellfleet Elementary School represents an alternative to that typical dysfunctional science/public relationship. One refreshing note was an effort by scientists to explain not only the results, but also the assumptions, methods, and theories behind them. People asked about the selection of factors to study, or about habitat assessment in tidal river versus bay sites, not to discredit a finding, but to understand more about how results were achieved. The conference was itself a small data point for the case that ordinary citizens can engage in science-based discussions, given enough time and well-crafted presentations, displays, videos, and other materials.
You can see from the schedule that there was a wide variety of presentations and posters. There was talk about dolphin mass strandings, bathymetry, auditory evoked potential, sentinel species, estuaries, cross-shore sediment transport, salt marsh backup, turtle gardens, terrapin clutches, brumation, eutrophication, cultching, winter/spring blooms, quahog seed, anoxic shellfish, temperature-dependent sex determination, anthropogenic effects, and many other topics related to the diverse ecosystems of the Outer Cape.
There were some good videos from the Friends of Herring River and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Brian Sharp complemented the latter with a talk and a tour of the IFAW van used for marine mammal rescues. This was especially salient given the mass strandings of dolphins in Wellfleet Bay in the early part of the year.
These presentations emphasized the interconnectedness of ecosystems, with humans as an integral part. Mark Borrelli from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies talked about how groins and revetments prevent local beach erosion, e.g., to protect a house, but shift the erosion elsewhere. Thus, they are simply “erosion relocation structures.” Sarah Martinez from the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary presented a poster on the consequences for horseshoe crabs of their use as bait for conch and eels. Moreover, the revetments that relocate beach erosion also disturb the spawning, much of which occurs above the high tide mark.Vincent Malkoski from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries spoke about the data on horseshoe crab fisheries. These findings have led to harvesting closures for five days around the new and full moons in May and June to allow lunar spawning. Diane Murphy from the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant spoke on the relation between oyster and clam growth and the wide variety of habitats they find in Cape Cod Bay.
Avoiding Either/Or Thinking
One consequence of creating the forum in this way was that discussions avoided the either/or kind of thinking often expressed in mainstream media. For example, although most of the participants shared deep commitments to preserving natural environments and generally opposed rampant development, I heard statements such as “you can’t say that dredging is always bad or good; the decision is about choices and values.” There would then be productive dialogue that critiqued human-made alterations of the shoreline, estuaries, ponds, and so on, but acknowledged values others might hold for commerce, recreation, or housing. Zero-based planning is no longer an option in the Wellfleet area: Every change today, even one that seeks to undo earlier construction, interacts with a myriad of alterations over centuries and can have unintended consequences for the environment.
Through Q/A, posters, and ample time for informal discussion, the conference fostered one to many, many to one, and many to many conversations among participants including scientists in the same and other disciplines, students, and general public. There was an interactive map on which people could write their hopes and concerns and peg them to a geographic spot. The map activity will be continued at the library to solicit input from those who did not attend the conference. I saw numerous examples of scientists taking seriously the concerns or knowledge of the public.
This was perhaps enhanced by the fact that many of the projects involve direct citizen science participation , e.g., the river herring count, the horseshoe crab spawning assessment, terrapin sightings, and the dolphin rescues. Others involve coordination with local activist organizations, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.
Some were of special relevance to those involved in commerce, such as oyster farmers. Jessica Smith and Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College had an interesting poster on a study of genetic diversity among hatchery versus reef oysters, showing, as one might expect, a greater diversity for the reef oysters. This provides indirect support for seeding oyster beds with pelagic, rather than hatchery, veligers. Some oyster farmers still collect these wild larvae for seeing their beds, despite the method being considered slower, difficult, and old-fashioned. A quahog farmer of 30 years was able to add comments about changes over three decades that was missing from most of the shorter-term scientific studies.
Perhaps a meeting like this requires a supportive habitat such as Wellfleet in order to thrive, just as the terrapins, horseshoe crabs, eels, dolphins, ospreys, and other creatures do. Would it fail to survive elsewhere?
Richard Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix that no organism can survive without a supportive environment, but also that no living environment exists without organisms. In this case, the conference organism succeeds because of the town environment, but also shapes it to become more supportive of exactly the kind of discussion heard today.
The conference was well-organized with good snacks, including clam chowder. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the special beauty of Wellfleet, but also sadness about what we’ve done to destroy this, and so much else of the natural world. The fact that a conference such as this is so rare punctuates that sadness. How much did you hear from political candidates or mass media this year about protecting the environment we all live in and depend upon?
Small but good things are worth preserving. I hope to make the conference an annual event.
Because of the warm winter on Cape Cod this winter, the alewives are returning early to the local rivers. Alewives are a type of herring. They’re anadromous, meaning that they live in the ocean, but swim up freshwater streams to spawn.
Their population is declining in New England, so the River Herring Network organizes herring wardens and volunteers (called “monitors”) to assess their numbers during the spring run. The counts go on for two months, with volunteers assigned specific times each week to count.
Locally, the count is connected with efforts by the Friends of Herring River to restore that river to something akin to its condition before the Chequessett Neck Road Dike was installed and the surrounding wetlands were developed.
Susan got the official training for the count, so she’s the real Monitor, but I went along as a volunteer for the volunteer. I guess you could say that I was an Unofficial Herring River Estuary Alewife Monitor Assistant (UHREAMA).
We decided to cycle to the site for our first scheduled count. It’s only a half hour away, but has some good hills and soft sand paths to make the cycling interesting. We passed Black Pond and a friend’s house on the way. You can these and other photos at photos from the count.
The official count site is at a beautiful bend in the tiny Herring River, with a fallen willow marking the spot and serving as a convenient shelf for the field test kit. Byu the way, there are many Herring Rivers. This is the one in Wellfleet.
Here’s the data for our first foray:
- Time: 9:07- 9:17 am
- Air temperature 12 ºC
- Water temperature: 13 ºC
Unfortunately, the number that matters most is this one:
- Number of herring: 0
Somewhere else, this bridge over the Herring River would be seen as in need of a little repair, but here, it’s just a reminder of the alliance between culture and nature in the National Seashore area. That alliance isn’t without its problems, as we can see in the decline of the Herring River and its herring, but at least there’s an effort to try to make it work.
The Sunday Doonesbury strip nailed the problem:
The 400 richest families in America now hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the country combined!
So, in the midst of an economic crisis, how do our leaders (nearly every Republican and most of the Democrats, including the President) make use of this information?
They celebrate two things:
- Cut that “waste” in government, especially the bit going to spending on job training, education, food, housing, and healthcare for that no-good 150 million, and
- Absolutely, under no circumstances, allow any new taxes, especially on those 400 families, who provide so much for the rest of us.
There is an parallel universe, one with people just like us, an economic downturn, and people out of work. But there are two differences: People there believe that increased spending now is actually vital to get the economy going, put people to work, and in the long run actually reduce the deficit. (This by the way is the view of most economists, liberal or conservative in both of these universes.) So, point #1, austerity now, is considered an extremely dumb and ill-timed idea.
Second, those people think that the short-term deficit and the long-term debts are very real problems that need to be addressed intelligently and comprehensively. That means management of spending, but also fair contributions from all, including what middle class we have left and even those 400 families. They don’t believe that all of the economic sacrifice ought to fall on the bottom 50%. So, point #2, no new taxes ever, is also viewed as a wacky idea.
In that parallel universe, people would like to
- Get the economy going.
- Develop a thoughtful plan for revenues and spending, one that involves shared commitment from all.
Is that parallel universe possible?
Mari Margil and Ben Price have a detailed article in Yes! magazine this month about Pittsburgh’s recent ban on natural gas drilling, which uses the “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing technique. Pittsburgh is the first major city in the US to ban corporations from natural gas drilling.
The ordinance has a direct impact on Pittsburgh, but as they point out, its implications go much further:
Provisions in the ordinance eliminate corporate “personhood” rights within the city for corporations seeking to drill, and remove the ability of corporations to wield the Commerce and Contracts Clauses of the U.S. Constitution to override community decision-making.
Community decision making is essential in this arena for two reasons: First, exemptions to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act for the oil and gas industry, expanded even further in 2005, mean that the burden of proof is now on communities to prove that any drilling practice is unsafe. This, it’s essential that communty decision making be supported and seen as the proper venue for judging the value of any drilling. Second, no individual landowner can have much impact on the drilling. The horizontal drilling methods mean that the fracking can proceed, regardless of landowner approval. All the landowner can do is decide to forego any royalties. This effectively grants all power to the corporation doing the drilling.
This issue hits home for me, since Fort Worth has been a major site for fracking (Smith, 2010). Although the oil and gas industry has asserted that fracking does not pollute underground water supplies or air quality, does not cause earthquakes, and is all in all a benign way to produce clean energy, it’s difficult to accept the assertions when they continually seek exemptions to EPA review and refuse to release data on the chemicals and procedures they use.
- Environmental Protection Agency website on hydraulic fracturing.
- Horwitt, Dusty (2009, March). Free Pass for Oil and Gas: Environmental Protections Rolled Back as Western Drilling Surges. Environmental Working Group.
- Lustgarten, Abrahm (2009, July 8). Energy Industry Sways Congress With Misleading Data. ProPublica.
- Margil, Mari; & Price, Ben (2010, November 16). Pittsburgh Bans Natural Gas Drilling. Yes!.
- Smith, Jack (2010). Various article about the experiences in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram.
Money reflects priorities, and priorities reflect values. Consider US Government expenditures to
- provide relief for the flooding in Pakistan: $0.076 billion
- support the Pakistan military since 2001: ~$12 billion
- fight the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan: ~$325 billion
Put another way:
The US government has in effect offered $3.80 for each of the 20 million people who’ve lost family members, food, clean water, homes, and livelihoods because of the floods. It’s spent 158 times that for military aid, much of which has not gone to fight terrorism, but to bolster a military dictatorship, to provide heavy weaponry that threatens India, and to benefit the US defense industry. It’s spent 4,276 times as much to fight a war that shows little prospect of winning hearts and minds, nor for ending terrorism.
(Of course, we may later spend more on flood relief; we could consider annual, rather than total costs; all of the numbers are contested estimates. But regardless of how you cut it, the differences are striking.)
Then we ask: Why don’t “they” love us and embrace our values?
Has your sleep returned to normal after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster? If so, it may be time to think about why this was not an aberration, why we’re likely to see more and even larger disasters in the near future.
Michael Klare lays out some plausible scenarios in a recent Mother Jones article, BP-Style Extreme Energy Nightmares to Come.
The only question is: What will the next Deepwater Horizon disaster look like (other than another Deepwater Horizon disaster)? The choices are many, but here are four possible scenarios for future Gulf-scale energy calamities. None of these is inevitable, but each has a plausible basis in fact.
The only thing that seems implausible is that we can continue to extract energy at the rate we do now without ever greater environmental, political, and economic costs.
BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg says that he does “care about the small people.” CEO Tony Hayward says, “I’d like my life back” (he barely had time to watch his 52-foot yacht “Bob” compete in a race off England’s coast). And to the House Oversight and Investigations sub-committee on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: “I wasn’t involved in any of the decision-making…we drill hundreds of wells around the world.”
I’ve recently learned where they’re getting their material. As John Clarke and Bryan Dawe say, the industry adheres to “very rigorous maritime engineering standards.”
The New York Times has some interesting interactive graphics and multimedia on the oil spill in the Gulf, e.g., Map and Estimates of Oil Spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Be sure to use the “Play” button to see how the spill has developed between April 22 and today.
The story of how this has happened and the ongoing saga have much more impact than figures about “millions of gallons,” especially when estimates vary widely and change frequently. But it’s clearly working its way up the list of the world’s largest oil spills.
As the world continues to demand more oil, producers enter even more treacherous situations. Even if we had good oversight, instead of the cozy relationships we now see between regulators and industry, we’re likely to see more such disasters.