Eco Essay: The Ghosts of Biogeography


Vulnerable and Declining Dracaena cinnabari, the Socotra dragon tree, Yemen

August 18, 2014

Periodically, Eco News Network features eco essays written by individuals with the environment close to their heart. The opinions expressed in these essays are those of the writers.

Here, Dr. Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison of Dancing Star Foundation share their thoughts about “The Ghosts of Biogeography.”

On Sunday morning, August 10th, lazily picking up the Los Angeles Times, all but does us in. Consider this rapid-fire sampling of headlines – a schematic of world events that we all, this human condition, suffers in the wake of being caught up in the daily fall-out, directly and indirectly: “Obama sees no quick fix in Iraq,” ”We are alive, but we have nothing,” “Low-level fighting persists in Gaza,” “Anger rises in Liberia about Ebola response,” “Forecast is all sun but still little solar in many states,” “Cancer doesn’t always deter smokers.”

But the most heartbreaking and telling of all, one individual family’s tragedy – the loss of a teenage son.

“One final loving vigil.” This latter story, written by Emily Foxhall describes what suddenly killed the unsuspecting youth, a concoction known as “spice” or “K2,” “a synthetic form of pot that some experts say can overwhelm brain circuitry, leading to psychosis, kidney injury, high body temperature, heart attack or death.”

In the Arts & Books section of the same LA Times issue is a photograph of Pablo Picasso and his future wife, Jacqueline Roque, from a new traveling exhibition of photographs of famous artists curated by Picasso’s grandson Olivier, entitled “Revealed.”

What is so revealing to us about this photograph, and the litany of horrible news on a single morning in a single newspaper, is the realization that there is the giant, Picasso, the man who had painted the searing, unforgettable portrait of human madness in his 1937 masterpiece “Guernica” that was his unrequited outrage over the destruction by Nazis and fascists of the quiet village in Basque Country, northern Spain, named Guernica. But in this reproduced photograph, Picasso is at home, quietly, ever so gently playing with his loving Dalmatian.

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction,” Pablo Picasso famously said.

The implications, of course, resonate throughout the troubling truths of our human natures.

“The Ghosts of Biogeography”
When the great Renaissance explorer, scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859)

Critical Endangered Belarus Wisent, Bialowieza Forest

Critical Endangered Belarus Wisent, Bialowieza Forest

enunciated the principles of biogeography, relating to the distribution of species predicated on geographical differentiations, it is unlikely he could ever have imagined the scope of today’s ecological crises. By 1967, however, when Robert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson published their book The Theory of Island Biogeography (Princeton University Press), relations between extinction of species and destruction of habitat were becoming all too clear across biome after biome, mathematically characterized and subjected to the unprecedented scrutiny of species and population resiliencies under condition of diminishing habitat. Individuals, by the billions were dying, becoming ghosts before we ever knew they even had existed.

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Endangered Neo-Tropical Paradise in Southeastern Peru

Recently, in the 30th July issue of Current Biology, a PhD student Zuzana Burivalova, based in the Applied Ecology and Conservation Group of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, working under the aegis of Prof. Lian Pin Koh, in concert with her co-authors Cagan Sekercioglu and Lian Pin, have analyzed four dozen studies with respect to loss of biodiversity under circumstances involving impact variables of logging upon tropical forests. Their conclusions, while not surprising to many, are nonetheless devastating, in light of the current calamity of willful human deforestation amongst those very vectors of the world’s most genetically rich equatorial sanctuaries.

The authors conclude that “Every increase of 20 cubic meters per hectare in logging intensity results in an approximately 35% decrease in mammal species richness.” That’s a mere 3-to-4 trees cut down in 2.47 acres (1 hectare).

Placed in perspective, the data is even more shattering than the math can reckon upon: Loggers are not epicurean dilettantes but marauders with little pleasure in the exercise of restraint, a luxury scarcely ever volunteered by multinational calculator-wielding geeks. Hence, the following summary, from the Website “Think GlobalGreen” one of the best I’ve seen, of tropical forest loss: “Unbelievably, more than 200,000 acres of rainforest are burned every day. That is more than 150 acres lost every minute of every day, and 78 million acres lost every year…. It is estimated that the Amazon alone is vanishing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year. If nothing is done to curb this trend, the entire Amazon could well be gone within another fifty years. If deforestation continues at current rates, scientists estimate nearly 80 to 90% of tropical rainforest ecosystems will be destroyed by the year 2020.”


Endangered Egyptian Vulture

For other vertebrates, particularly all the birds groups, amphibians and reptiles, the numbers are equally chilling. And with respect to invertebrates  – who, in places like Yasuní National Park in Ecuador, are the astonishing biological fonts of nature’s evolutionary chances of success, beyond all measure – recent data correlates the halving of all insects and spiders with the doubling of human population, to date, a dire conjoining of sinister, untempered policies and con-volitions that is bound to escalate according to a whole new frontier of biogeography extrapolations and even the most conservative U.N., World Bank and Population Reference Bureau demographic projections.

There are now nearly 7.3+ billion human beings, poised to hit between 9.5 and 16 billion depending upon which demographic model one chooses to focus upon. Homo sapiens are now consuming literally trillions of animals every year for consumption, under Holocaust like conditions of torture, and murder. That legacy is being passed down to our future offspring: a multi-tasking bulwark of outright and conceptual violence, not kindness or the least restraint.


Critically Endangerd Proboscis Monkey, Indonesia

Meanwhile, at a minimum, 800 million people are chronically malnourished. As many as one-third of all species are deemed to be at risk of extinction. Yet, the complexities of gauging levels of risk are underscored by the fact the world’s leading biodiversity monitor (the IUCN or International Union for the Conservation of Nature, based in Gland, Switzerland, and keeper of the “Red Book”) has thus far – after 50 years in existence as an organization – managed to study a mere 71,576 species, against a backdrop of a known 1.7-1.9 million species. While the IUCN record is a huge achievement, the result of vast scientific collaborations throughout the world, the remaining challenges are almost too bewildering to contemplate. Awaiting gap analysis of vulnerability status are not merely the remaining known taxa (that 1.7- to -1.9 million species) but the tens-of-millions of other species we can only guess at.


Critically Endangered Portuguese Iberian Wolf

If one were to utilize, for example, stochastic mathematical theories, or the various Markoff Processes, chains and covers for deducing current population data for other species, the five other Kingdoms of Life would come into furious play, namely, Monera, Protists, Fungi, Plants and Animals. Add to that the multitudinous constellations of viruses (excluded by biologists from the Kingdoms for numerous reasons) and we are possibly speaking of 100 million or more species, each with millions or more individuals – in some cases – from one species of African Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) to countless ant and termite species – in the many billions of individuals. The zeros are like so many stars, or grains of sand. Cosmologists are left with futile anthropic principles; astrogeophysicists throw up their hands in wonder. We cannot grasp them.

“World War III”
In 1994 when we wrote a book entitled World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the End of the Millennium (Bear & Co, Santa Fe, NM), and the second, updated edition in 1998 (Foreword by Jane Goodall, Continuum Books, New York), humans were adding at that time (1994) approximately one city of Los Angeles to the planet every three weeks. We continue at nearly the same pace (it is now one Los Angeles every four weeks, but – as Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich (President of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology and a close personal friend, and John P. Holdren (current assistant to President Obama for Science and Technology) pointed out in their famed 1971 “I = PAT” construct, today’s levels of extraction intensity, population, affluence and technology have so escalated as to swamp the data, whilst demonstrating proof positively the underlying equation, one of the great contributions to modern-day biology.

This decade’s numeric bad news truly overwhelms the quantification modalities addressed by the Club of Rome, founded in 1968 (the same year Paul and Anne Ehrlich published their remarkable The Population Bomb); and exponentially outpace the data streams and predictions feeding President Jimmy Carter’s group that assembled around the Global 2000 Report. All that data, plus sum, added to the ecological wildfires that partly predicated our own (highly subjective) interpretation of the human inflictions to life on Earth in the guise of our ten-hour TV miniseries and novel for Turner Broadcasting, “Voice of the Planet” in 1991. Our exhaustive series was, in so many words, a love letter to Gaia who played a “voice” and a sweeping reality of biotic unraveling and lamentation.

That the world is hemorrhaging biologically is clearly the most striking “environmental paradox” in human history. It is front-page news every day. Our response to our own assaults on the Earth constitute the gist of that paradox, that unrelenting downpour of bad news.


Critical Endangered Belarus Wisent, Bialowieza Forest


Two Preserve, Extinct Fresh Water Fish

Many have masterly described this double-bind situation (the psychotherapeutic brain child of the late Gregory Bateson) by which we, along with most other interdependent life forms, fine ourselves entrapped, Eric Wagner being one of those those insightful commentators who nailed the advancing syndrome in a December 8th, 2010 Conservation Magazine essay entitled “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It… And I Feel Fine.” The first part of Wagner’s title quotes those piercing lyrics from the band R.E.M.’s 1987 album “Document.”  It is not just a memorable tune and striking words to nail its message. Far beyond the music, a colossal codex of missteps and ultimate ecocide by one species that should know better, yet – collectively – does not, marches to a different drummer, economic mantras calling for an all-out transmogrification in the name of corporate personhood of Nature into a mindless ledger recording the consumption of goods, GNP, nation against nation, region competing with region, in the myriad battles for economic seniority.

Paul Ehrlich and Michael Tobias recently published a book together, Hope on Earth: A Conversation (University of Chicago Press, May, 2014) in which the Authors discuss the thinking processes that have led our species into this current ecological cul de sac in which we all find ourselves pinioned, like Prometheus on his rock, an eagle devouring his liver by the day. That Promethean pain, elicited in the mythologies of our species is no platitude, but the disease currently eating away at most species and populations, the attrition most demonstrably discernible amongst the very individuals who are the ecological end-losers of the these colossal “pain points” (those aggregates of the largest quanta of suffering, such as rain forests, coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands, sea grasses, and slaughter houses.

Crows and termites, ants and micro-biomes might be flourishing, under the weight of the outright devastation all about, opening up remarkable and untried niches for their predatory strategies. But for organisms of a larger size, the angst is measurable, not by co-sympathetic strategies enlisted by specific theories, but by everyday commonsense observation. As evolutionary biologist and deep ethologist Dr. Marc Bekoff once wrote, anecdotes quantified sufficiently, add up to a science (or words to that effect). In Hope on Earth, Ehrlich and Tobias are clear to point to the various likely scenarios our species is courting: not one of them is pretty, and each pathway mirrors a current crisis that is overwhelming in its implications for trans-generational ethics, equity, parity, and survivability.

“Survival of the – What, Who, How?”
At one point in our “conversation” (Hope on Earth) Ehrlich describes how he gives human civilization about a 10% chance of surviving the 21st century (22 known civilizations before us have gone extinct as a result of their ecological overshoots). Yet, by contrast, Ehrlich is quite optimistic, he says, noting that a close colleague of his, and one of the world’s most eminent scientists, gives us only a “1% chance of survival.”

Endangered Bhutanese Takin

Endangered Bhutanese Takin

We (Tobias and Morrison) question the whole notion of kin altruism, because it is clear – from Wall Street to all those commensalist or symobiotic communities the recent emergence of empathy research strives to cast in a limelight – that the Anthropocenic pressures, flashpoints and fortress of callous indifference to the suffering of others is mounting a force of nature all its own that has only occurred 5 times before, in the annals of biology on Earth: The five previous extinction spasms, none of which was caused by a single species, not even close.

In the meantime, we continue – like an out of control train in a dark tunnel at night, its headlights turned inward – to rapaciously overstep the humble boundaries of a finite biosphere. We do so flippantly and all the science in the world appears incapable of changing our minds. We front our independence fully ignoring human and all other animal rights, with rare exceptions to this suicidal biological vogue, it would appear. We think nothing of spending far more than a million dollars per year to save one California Condor, whilst consuming in the US alone, over 9 billion other birds annually, for redundant protein and to satisfy the approximately ten thousand taste buds on our tongues and riddling the surface of our throats.

But evolution does not condemn or liberate us: only our daily choices can do that.

We have fouled every ecosystem that, by implication, means that we have fouled our nest; that there is no vulture who is not far more meticulous about his/her personal hygiene than the average human being. We do not allogroom – we pamper or exploit; we indulge and kill; we muddle, argue, and invite disaster with nearly every economic aspiration and obsolete insistence on entitlement.

We remain averse to the idea of discussing international family planning in any meaningful political sphere, whilst adding megacity to megacity with dizzying speed, all but ignoring the vast majority of those children who will likely be born into a world of daunting poverty, nutritional deficiencies, chemically distorted atmosphere, sickly soils, and a punishing absence of clean drinking water.

Artists, scientists, students, people of common sense know only too well that we are in trouble. And truly, our continuing need to visit national parks and wilderness areas, to revere and celebrate nature remains the single key to our survival as a species.

If we are to solve these dilemmas – and embrace the obvious solace of a shade tree in a meaningful way – we must stand up to the reality of the vast insults we – our species – are inflicting on the Earth. We cannot stop a patient in ER from bleeding if we don’t understand or acknowledge the source of that injury. The source is ourselves. The question is: do we collectively have the courage to acknowledge that we have made a major mess of things and we have very little time to redeem the consequences of our ecological illiteracy?

Michael Charles Tobias’s and Jane Gray Morrison’s next book, Why Life Matters: Fifty Ecosystems of the Heart & Mind, a photographic compilation of essays previously published here in Eco News Network, and in Forbes, comes out from Springer International this Fall, as does the Author’s other new book, The Metaphysics of Protection, from Waterfront Digital Press, with a Foreword by Professor Dr. Ervin László, two time Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Founder of the Club of Budapest, and a Preface by evolutionary biologist and deep ethologist, Dr. Marc Bekoff.

About the Authors
Dr. Michael Charles Tobias ( is a global ecologist whose field research has taken him to over 90 countries. He has worked in ecological antMichael_in_California_Sanctuary[6]hropology, bio-cultural ethics, and large-scale biodiversity conservation; eco-restoration, the saving of endangered species, animal rights, and has a particular focus upon the future prospects for biological evolution. His nearly 50 books (non-fiction as well as fiction) and more than 170 films have been read and broadcast throughout the world. Recipient of the “Courage of Conscience Prize” and a myriad of other awards and distinctions, Tobias has been a Professor at numerous universities and is the President of the Dancing Star Foundation. Michael’s most recent book, Hope On Earth: A Conversation (co-authored with Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, and Additional Commentary from Dr. John Harte of UC-Berkeley) comes out this Earth Day from the University of Chicago Press.

Jane Gray Morrison is an author, ecologist and filmmaker who has done field work janemorrison3.jpgv2.jpgklein_1in dozens of countries, productions for many networks around the world, and written numerous books, including God’s Country: The New Zealand Factor, Donkey: The Mystique of Equus Asinus, and Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence ( She has served as a Director on several arts organizations, and is the Executive Vice President of Dancing Star Foundation. Among her recent film productions are the PBS feature documentaries, No Vacancy, and Hotspots (

The authors are contributors to Eco News Network. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the writers. This essay was printed with permission from the authors. Copyright © 2014 by Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison/Dancing Star Foundation. All photos are provided by and published with permission from Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison/Dancing Star Foundation.

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