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Human Evolution in Response to Pollution? Fact or Fiction?

Cross-posted from Emily Monosson’s Evolution in a toxic world As I am nearing the closing chapter (I hope) of my book on rapid evolution in a chemical world – I am struggling to More »

Where did you park?

Executive Orders for 2014: Richard Willson

Back in November of 2013, President Obama issued an executive order on climate preparedness. Because executive orders circumvent Congress within certain limits, they allow the president to implement action to address climate More »

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Learning What Feels Green

There’s a great interview of anthropologist David Howes in the 14 September 2103 NewScientist (subscription access) about the role of synesthesia in marketing products.  Synestesia—the sense of mixing senses (experiencing color as More »

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Overpopulation Is Not the Problem…If Climate and Biodiversity Do Not Count

In his recent New York Times article, “Overpopulation is not the problem,” geographer Erle Ellis comes to two optimistic conclusions: (1) we can feed our planet’s growing human population, and (2) we More »

Earth Day Hopes

To celebrate Earth Day this year, we asked a range of Island Press authors to briefly answer the question “Within your field, what specific progress on an environmental issue do you hope has been made by next Earth Day?” From your backyard to our galactic neighbors, they offered a chorus of solutions, food for thought, and—most of all—hope.


James Aronson, co-author of Ecological Restoration, Second Edition

After 30 years of hard work, the science and practice of ecological restoration are now called upon by the European Commission (European Parliament 2012) and by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as many national governments and major NGOs (IUCN, World Resources Institute, WWF, and Nature Conservancy) to help society scale up restoration actions and achieve new levels of effectiveness in fighting biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and indeed to attenuate anthropogenic climate change. The Society for Ecological Restoration, and dozens of other NGOs, not to mention hundreds if not thousands of cooperatives, agencies, academic groups and companies are rolling up their sleeves. Really exciting things are happening in South America, South and West Africa, in East Asia, and finally, in Europe. A huge stumbling block everywhere is the need for training, inspiration, and capacity-building of competent and passionate practitioners.


Anthony Barnosky, author of Heatstroke:

The nations that are the chief emitters of greenhouse gases need to agree on a strategy to reduce emissions fast. The cuts needed across the G20 nations are in the neighborhood of 6 percent per year each year to 2100, starting now. I’d hope that by Earth Day 2015, specific proposals to to achieve that are on the table and that the USA will be leading the charge for binding agreements.


Yoram Bauman, co-author of The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change (forthcoming):

I hope that folks in Washington State (including the Carbon Washington group I’m part of) will have begun collecting signatures to put a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the statewide ballot in November 2016, and that folks in Oregon will also be making progress towards establishing a West Coast carbon pricing bloc! (British Columbia already has a terrific carbon tax, and California has a cap-and-trade system.


F. Kaid Benfield, author of People Habitat:

I would like to see more cities, developers, and—importantly—suburbs adopt standards and practices for green infrastructure to manage stormwater runoff. Green infrastructure—use of permeable surfaces such as pavers and porous pavement, green roofs, and strategically functional landscaping to take advantage of natural absorption and evaporation of rainwater—can do a lot to help clean our urban waterways while reducing the heat island effect and beautifying our neighborhoods. Philadelphia is setting a great precedent by pledging that at least one third of its currently “gray” impervious acres will be greened within 25 years, and I hope others follow suit.


Michael R. Boswell, co-author of Local Climate Action Planning:

In light of the new report from the IPCC on the impacts of climate change, by the next Earth Day I would like to see all communities assess their vulnerability to climate change and develop plans to prepare and adapt. Creating a more resilient community will not only help these communities bear the impacts of climate change but will also provide numerous economic, social, environmental, and health co-benefits.


Hillary Brown, author of Next Generation Infrastructure

Central to our environmental, social and economic welfare, America’s renewal of its critical infrastructure – its aging energy, water, waste, communication, and transportation systems—gets underway. Prompted by new political will and more innovative policies and investment vehicles, the renewal of public works and utilities will transcend industrial-era formulas. Instead, planners, agencies and professionals will devise more integrated, multifunctional, and synergistic solutions that capitalize on a connectedness to nature and each other (across sectors); that simultaneously tackle both climate mitigation and adaptation; and that extend benefits to neighboring communities—essential tactics for future-proofing vital urban systems.


Andre F. Clewell, co-author of Ecological Restoration, Second Edition:

Ecological restoration is that strategy which fosters recovery of degraded ecosystems and expands global capacity to conserve biodiversity. For that reason, 174 nations signed an accord by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to restore 15% of the world’s degraded ecosystems by the year 2020. In spite of valiant contributions by Island Press, too many people still don’t understand what restoration is, and too few people have the experience and training to design and implement restoration projects. In face of our present dearth of knowledge and knowhow, we must intensify our resolve if we are to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems anytime soon. We must remember what one Island Press Book on ecological restoration asserts, “Nature sustains us; therefore, we serve our own interests when we reciprocate and sustain nature.”


Dominick A. DellaSala, editor of Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World:

Here are three steps I hope President Obama takes by Earth Day next year:
1. Protect high biomass forests and other public lands as part of climate change insurance—~ 33 million acres of moist carbon-dense, mature forests that store massive amounts of carbon could become a national carbon trust and numerous other public lands proposals await consideration as national monuments for their climate and biodiversity benefits.
2. Transition the Tongass rainforest, one of only five remaining intact temperate rainforests globally, out of old growth logging by rapidly shifting timber supply to second growth.
3. Stop the Keystone pipeline from reaching US refineries that, according to Dr. James Hansen, if approved, would be “game over” on climate change.


Cristina Eisenberg, author of The Carnivore Way:

Large carnivores such as wolves, grizzly bears, wolverines, and lynx stand at a crossroads at which the US federal government is proposing to make significant changes in their legal status—removing Endangered Species Act protection from some, adopting recovery plans for others. Many experts believe that these policy actions may not be based on best science. Given how critical these species are to ecosystem health and how at risk some of them are, by Earth Day next year I hope that we resolve this conservation debate in a manner that enables large carnivores to thrive in as many places as possible.


Peter Fox-Penner, author of Smart Power:

Earth Day is a day to dream big, so my dream is to see a global accord limiting greenhouse gases in all the major nations in the world and a second global accord preserving biodiversity and endangered global habitats. Finally, I hope for more technologies that improve the environmental footprint of natural gas production, including reduced methane leakage. EPA is already working on this.

Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif.

Peter H. Gleick, author of The World’s Water Volume 8:

As we head toward another Earth Day, another circle of the planet around the Sun, it would be great to see continued and accelerated progress toward providing everyone with access to safe water and sanitation. The benefits would be enormous: with the opportunity for improved educational opportunities for young women, reductions in preventable water-related diseases, greater economic choices, and reduced political conflict over this scarce and precious resource. Oh, and have we stopped hunting the whales yet?


Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable:

Conserving water is vital to us as a people, and we have a simple, effective way to save water by doing something that we do every day. Turn off a light. It takes a lot of water to produce energy. A single 60-watt incandescent bulb that burns 12 hours a day may annually use as much as 6,300 hundred gallons of water. If each of the more than 300 million Americans turned off a light, we’d save 1.9 trillion gallons of water.


Kristin E. Haskins, co-editor of Plant Reintroduction in a Changing Climate:

By the next Earth Day, I would like to see an increase in the number of management and recovery plans that take climate change into consideration when planning for the future of endangered and threatened species. I personally feel like climate change is one of the biggest threats out there to rare species, yet I see little action to mitigate for this imminent threat.


Christopher Johnson and David Govatski, co-authors of Forests for the People:

The most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of major disruptions in the coming decades from climate change, including flooding in coastal areas, hunger because of warming and drought, increasingly severe storms, and enormous population dislocations as rising ocean levels make coastal areas uninhabitable. The Obama administration has shown leadership by committing the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020, using 2005 as the benchmark. We would hope that by next year, Congress would cooperate with the White House in writing and enacting cap-and-trade legislation, unleashing the power of markets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even more quickly, spur the growth of alternative forms of energy, and create the tens of thousands of jobs that investment in this emerging energy sector would stimulate.

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Sadhu Johnston, co-author of The Guide to Greening Cities:

Cities are doing a great deal to address the climate crisis, but they can’t do it alone. We absolutely need federal action on climate. I’d like to see a national carbon reduction program adopted by the US government to systematically reduce carbon emissions across all sectors of the US economy.


Robert B. Keiter, author of To Conserve Unimpaired:

New meaningful landscape conservation initiatives designed to expand or protect national park and other nature reserve boundaries to address mounting ecological fragmentation and climate change concerns, thus safeguarding our at-risk wildlife resources. This could take the form of new Antiquities Act national monument designations, congressional expansion of strategic park or wilderness boundaries, or new institutionalized interagency planning and coordination processes. It also could involve the designation, either legislatively or administratively, of new wildlife corridors to facilitate migration, dispersal, or relocation efforts.


Marc J. Kuchner, author of Marketing for Scientists:

I hope we meet some intelligent extraterrestrials and that they teach us to our take care of own planet.


Michael Kugelman, co-editor of The Global Farms Race:

Pakistan is one of Asia’s most water-short countries, but it also has some of the most promising water conservation practices in the region. Here’s hoping that by next year’s Earth Day, Pakistan has continued to expand its rainwater harvesting initiatives. These have already been implemented in parts of Karachi, but there’s certainly great potential for more.


Heather Leslie, co-editor of Ecosystems-Based Management for the Oceans:

Climate change is the most daunting and wide reaching human impact facing our world’s oceans, and the billions of people who rely on them. I sincerely hope that the participants in the COP 20 negotiations in Lima, Peru in December 2014 make substantial progress that enables the world to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and that this effort includes active discussion of ocean ecosystems and the benefits they provide to people.


Joyce Maschinski, co-editor of Plant Reintroduction in a Changing Climate:

By next Earth Day, I would like to see continued and increased efforts to protect natural areas, as well as re-establishing natural native vegetation within urban matrices. I would like residents in urban areas to have easily accessible urban trails so that they might connect with native plants and nature.


Emily Monosson, author of Evolution in a Toxic World:

I would like to see corporations step up and be responsible for the chemicals they produce and release and the associated health effects; whether pesticides, plastics, fuel, or sugar. Can you imagine how different the world would be if that happened?


Lucy Moore, author of Common Ground on Hostile Turf:

Having lived in Navajo Country for several years, I care deeply about the health and welfare of those people. And as a mediator, I have worked on remediation of uranium mine and milling sites. By April 2015 I hope to see the recently-awarded EPA funds hard at work removing, and safely disposing of, contaminated soil and water at Churchrock, a Navajo community in northwestern New Mexico that has suffered for decades from the legacy of uranium mining.


Darrin Nordahl, author of Making Transit Fun!:

One of the healthiest things we can do for both our bodies and our planet is to ride our bicycles for transportation. And people in cities around the world have shown a desire to do so; if only they could do it on city streets and feel comfortable and safe doing so. Cycle tracks—protected bike lanes—do just that: encourage folks to ride their bikes more frequently on city streets because of the protection they afford. Come Earth Day 2015, I hope cities throughout the United States will have built (or have immediate plans for building) cycle tracks on their city streets.


James L. Sipes, co-author of Creating Green Roadways:

By this time next year I would like to see our nation continue to rethink how we address transportation issues and come up with solutions that are safe, sustainable, environmentally friendly, visually attractive, and help improve community character. Anyone can help but walking and cycling more. Anything we can do to get people to park their automobile reduces energy consumption and emissions. Simply increasing bicycling from 1% to 1.5% of all trips in the U.S. would save 462 million gallons of gasoline each year, and would help protect our natural resources.


Galina Tachieva, author of Sprawl Repair Manual:

The best environmental contribution in the field of urban planning for the next year is to implement as many retrofits in our sprawling communities as possible. Sprawl is a major cause of air and water pollution, loss of natural habitats, energy and resources. Injecting urbanity into the suburban fabric through infill and repair will reduce our car-dependence and will contribute to a more balanced and healthy metropolis.


Sim Van der Ryn, author of Design for an Empathic World:

1. More greenery in our cities with living roofs, walls, interiors, and open green areas good for people, water absorption and absorbing CO2 replaced with plant producing oxygen.
2. Replacing fossil fuel energy use in our buildings and cars with cheaper, more abundant, cleaner energy from the sun.
3. Bringing our fractured society together with empathy and an awareness of the “common good”—a term that seemed to have disappeared from our language.


Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit:

By next Earth Day, I hope every planner and developer will understand how to recognize a transit-friendly place, and will understand the urgency of choosing such places when locating anything that will need transit service: apartments, shopping centers, and facilities for disadvantaged groups. Transit agencies are being bankrupted by demands for service to low-ridership, transit-hostile places, just because somebody powerful made a poor location choice. The convergence between urban form and transit is essential to sustainable urbanism, so the creators of urban form must understand the geometric features of successful transit, and how to recognize and foster them.


Brian Walker and David Salt, co-authors of Resilience Practice:

The big issue facing the world in the coming years is the food-energy-water nexus under the drivers of climate change and population growth. Despite our growing understanding of their inter-connections and the inevitable catastrophe if nothing changes, the situation only seems to grow worse, the future ever more uncertain. The most important area where progress is needed is recognition by big business (international corporations) and then action with joint industry/government in initiatives to build a more resilient future.


Alexandros Washburn, author of The Nature of Urban Design:

By next earth day can we seek a balance where we manage our relation to nature and see cities as habitats for people? Not be afraid of nature, and not be afraid of what we do to nature. To act. To build our cities with natural models, to manage risk while improving quality of life, and realize that in the process, both we and nature will change.


June Williamson, author of Designing Suburban Futures:

Enough with starchitecture and navel gazing! By next Earth Day, or before the next storm disaster, I hope that significant progress will have been made in discouraging continued car-dependent, low-density, use-separated suburbanization in vulnerable locations, by the implementation of fair policies, the adoption of revised urban codes, the creation of robust development and design incentives, and the creative focus of the best designers. We’ve urbanized more than enough land already; it’s past time to shift to a higher gear in retrofitting our suburbs and cities to be the resilient urban places we deserve to live in.


Richard Willson, author of Parking Reform Made Easy:

My hope is that cities will reform their minimum parking requirements by reducing the amount of parking they compel developers to build. This will lessen the direct environmental impacts of parking and begin to unwind the incentive that parking creates for private vehicle travel. Less private vehicle travel will help us make progress on reducing energy consumption, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Patio Season Starts Earlier in My Yard

An elegant sun catch at an outdoor café.

An elegant sun catch at an outdoor café. Photo by Robert Brown.

Post by Robert D. Brown

After a long cold winter it can feel wonderful to get outside and enjoy some spring weather. Want spring to arrive a little earlier in your backyard? The secret is to think about how your yard affects heat flowing to and from your body. If you’re in a location where you’re losing more energy than you’re receiving you’ll feel cold. But there are ways to design your backyard so that it provides a balance of the incoming and outgoing energy.

There are three ways to add heat to your body when you’re outdoors—work harder to warm up from the inside, move into the sun, or move near a warm surface. There are also three ways to lose heat—move into the wind, wet your skin, or move near a cool surface.

Island Press Figure 1

A windbreak in a naturalistic garden. Photo by Robert Brown.

In early spring you’ll want to maximize the additions and minimize the losses. There are many ways that this can be done but as an example think about a sunny but breezy spring day when the air temperature is hovering near freezing. It might look beautiful outside, but in reality it would feel very cold. But not if you have a sun-catch. It’s easy to design—start by selecting a place that is open to the south so the sun can stream in during the middle of the day. Next put a windbreak on the westerly side of the space. Your local conditions might vary somewhat, but across much of the U.S. and Canada the winds on sunny spring days blow from the westerly directions. Slow this wind and reduce the cooling. And finally, try to add a dark-colored south-facing wall on the north side of the space so that it can become heated by the sun. A bench set against this wall will be a wonderful warm place to sit on cool spring days.

Island Press Figure 2

A modern style garden’s windbreak. Photo by Robert Brown.

All the details can be selected to match your design style as long as the basic pattern is met. I call this the critical component design approach in my book Design with Microclimate. For example, in a naturalistic garden, like that pictured above, you could use vegetation or your house as the windbreak and a wooden fence as the south-facing wall. And in a modern style garden, like the one pictured here, the walls could be covered in vines.

The same principles can be applied to a larger area as well. The elegantly simple design of the outdoor café in the picture at the top of this post creates a very pleasant sun catch in which to linger and sip a leisurely espresso.

You’ll enjoy the warmth of your sun-catch every spring and as a bonus it’ll also provide a warm retreat on cool fall days.


Robert D. Brown is Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph, Canada, and author of Design With Microclimate: The Secret to Comfortable Outdoor Space.

ForewordFriday: Rhino Latrine Edition

Some people collect coins, some people collect books; people like Eric Dinerstein collect sightings of rare species. In The Kingdom of Rarities, newly released in paperback, Dinerstein shares stories from his career spent traveling the world in search of Andean cocks-of-the-rock, armadillos, and saolas. As he travels, he shares stories of how these species affect the ecosystems they live in and how scientists are working to learn more about them and how they can be protected. In this chapter, he takes his reader to Nepal and explains how to identify old rhino latrines.


On Interning at Island Press: Inner Workings

In this installment, Production Intern Melanie Meanders talks about the importance of hands-on experience.

I love language and literature, and I’ve always dreamed of being a part of the publishing process. That’s how I found myself moving to Washington DC from Salt Lake City, Utah, to get a master’s in publishing from the George Washington University. But as I went through my school courses, I found myself disappointed by the lack of practical experience and application. Everything was lofty discussion about office management, and I began to feel like I’d simply missed the train on learning actual, day-to-day editorial work.

Then I found the production internship at Island Press. Finally, I’m seeing the inner workings of a publishing office and I’m getting hands-on experience! As an intern here, I’m not just making copies and fetching coffee (the intern’s worst nightmare); I’m actually contributing to the production process for completed manuscripts and acquiring important skills for my chosen field. I’ve learned all the calculation that goes into determining the length a manuscript will be once it has been converted to a printed book. I’ve learned all about the proofreading process and how to incorporate changes from authors and freelancers. I’ve learned more about the application of style guides and standardization—and I’ve seen the difference it can make to a finished product.

I love the experience of suggesting my own changes and adjustments to the language and mechanics of a manuscript and I appreciate that my input is valued and my skills are utilized. At Island Press, I really do feel like part of the team.

My favorite thing about working at Island Press is that they are committed to making it an educational experience, not just a work experience. I’m not just asked to perform tasks, but to learn processes, and questions are encouraged and thoroughly addressed. I was especially impressed by “Island Press 101.” This is an entire day set aside for the interns, with a presentation to introduce each department and give a better understanding of how it contributes to the overall strength of the company. This day really shows that an Island Press internship is more than just office experience, it is an introduction to a whole field!

Finding Your Voice

Post by Nancy Baron

While not everyone may be interested in your science at first, many people are interested in scientists, as your work seems…mysterious. What do you actually do? Why are you so devoted to it? They want to know what makes you tick. Even if your research can seem obscure, they are often eager to discover a new perspective on the world through your eyes.

I remind scientists (and myself too) that when talking about your work, it’s often best to tell your story as if you were talking to friends who appreciate you and are hanging on your every word. Let your audience meet the real you.  You’ll see their eyes light up and their attention engage.

For many scientists this is liberating. I have had scientists rush up to me after a talk and say what a relief to hear it’s not only okay, but essential for them to be themselves.  All too often, scientists are trained to downplay, or even cloak their passion for their work, for fear of appearing to erode the scientific rigor of their science or their credibility as a researcher. Yet after they experiment a little with revealing their enthusiasm, they are convinced.

Jim Barry, a benthic ecologist from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, recounted at a reception at The Ocean in a High-CO2 World Symposium that followed a COMPASS communication workshop, “I was surprised by how important personality is. Be human.” Jim is a funny, charming guy. But when he spoke at the front of the room, he would put on his “science face”, become serious, and hide his sense of humor.  It was an aha! moment when he realized he could entertain people while talking about his science, just as he did when he talked about other things. Another young scientist, Heike Link  wrote me after a workshop to say “all of a sudden people really listen to me when I answer their questions about my work.” The difference? She told them why she cared about it.

But don’t try to be funny if you aren’t funny, or flamboyant if you are not. The important thing is to be your authentic self.


Finding your voice.
(Photo courtesy of Javier Q via Flickr)

There are many ways to find your voice. It can be fun – especially with the feedback and support of others.

A few weeks ago, at a science synthesis and advanced communication workshop I co-facilitated in Vancouver, British Columbia, I encouraged a group of academic scientists to experiment with different ways of expressing their personality as well as their knowledge. They were given options that included “How to be yourself on camera,” and “Twitter — a discipline in conveying your content and voice in 140 characters”. But most of the scientists chose to focus on creating op-ed articles in a session titled “Writing Opinions: Your Informed Argument”.

Read the full post at the COMPASS blog

Nancy Baron is Outreach Director of COMPASS, the Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea, and author of Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter.

Wolves in a Tangled Bank

elk in YNP

Elk browsing aspens in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Cristina Eisenberg.

The wolves’ return to Yellowstone and the subsequent recovery of plants that elk had been eating to death in their absence has become one the most popularized and beloved ecological tales. By the 1920s humans had misguidedly wiped out most of the wolves in North America, thinking that the only good wolf was a dead one. Without wolves preying on them, elk and deer (also called ungulates) exploded in number. Burgeoning ungulate populations ravaged plant communities, including aspen forests. Decades later, the wolves we reintroduced in Yellowstone hit the ground running, rapidly sending their ecological effects rippling throughout the region, restoring this ecosystem from top to bottom. Yet today some scientists caution that this story is more myth than fact because nature isn’t so simple.

For decades scientists have been investigating the ecological role of wolves. In his 1940s game surveys, Aldo Leopold found ungulates wiping out vegetation wherever wolves had been removed. He concluded that by controlling ungulates, wolves could restore plant communities and create healthier habitat for other species, such as birds.

Since Leopold’s time, many scientists have studied food web relationships between top predators and their prey—called trophic cascades. In the 1960s and 1970s Robert Paine, working with sea stars, and James Estes, working with sea otters, showed that ecosystems without top predators begin to unravel. John Terborgh called the ensuing rampant species extinctions an “ecological meltdown.” Paine created the metaphorical term keystone species to refer to top predators and noted that when you remove the keystone, arches and ecosystems collapse. Over the years ecologists found trophic cascades—also called top-down effects—ubiquitous from coral reefs to prairies to polar regions. However, William Murdoch and others have maintained that sunlight and moisture, which make plants grow, drive ecosystem processes from the bottom-up, making predators relatively unimportant. The Yellowstone wolf reintroduction provided the perfect setting to test these contrasting perspectives.

In the mid-1800s in his book The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin presciently described nature as a “tangled bank.” Nature’s complexity results from myriad species and their relationships with other species and all the things that can possibly affect them individually and collectively, such as disease, disturbance, and competition for food. Science works incrementally, taking us ever deeper into nature’s tangled bank as we investigate ecological questions. Each study answers some questions and begets new ones. Sometimes we find contradictory results. Learning how nature works requires what Leopold called “deep-digging research” in which we keep searching for answers amid the clues nature gives us, such as the bitten-off stem of an aspen next to a stream where there are no wolves.

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Browsed aspens in high predation risk area, Waterton Lakes National Park. Photo by Cristina Eisenberg.

Trophic cascades science that focuses on wolf effects is still in its infancy, with huge knowledge gaps. For example, we’ve linked wolves to strong effects that cascade down through multiple food web levels. However, we’re just starting to parse how context can influence these effects. Some Yellowstone studies have found that wolves have powerful indirect effects on the plants that elk eat, such as aspens, due to fear of predation. With wolves around, elk have to keep moving to stay alive, which reduces browsing pressure. Conversely, a growing body of studies are finding no wolf effect—that aspens in places with wolves aren’t growing differently than those where predation risk is low. Other studies have found that wolf predation risk doesn’t affect elk feeding behavior. In my own research I’ve found that wolves need another keystone force—fire—to most effectively drive trophic cascades. With wolves and fire present, elk herbivory drops, aspens thrive, and biodiversity soars due to the healthy habitat created by young, vigorously growing aspen.

aspen, Glacier National Park

Aspen growing above elk reach after fire and wolf recovery, Glacier National Park. Photo by Cristina Eisenberg.

It’s human nature to try to find simple solutions. Today we are grappling with monumental environmental problems such as climate change and habitat fragmentation. Due to the wolf’s iconic status and our need to fix broken ecosystems, the environmental community and the media have run with the science that shows a strong wolf effect. This has inspired other scientists to prove that ecosystems are more complex than that. These dissenting studies demonstrate that the wolf dwells in a tangled bank, working alongside many other ecological forces.

Tangled banks seldom yield simple answers. However, arguing about what exactly carnivores do ecologically and why we need them is fiddling while Rome burns. Large, meat-eating animals improve the health of plant communities and provide food subsidies for the many species that scavenge on their kills. A system with wolves in it is far richer than one without and can support many more grizzly bears, coyotes, wolverines, and eagles. There are things we don’t know and disagreements about what we do know. But given the accelerated human-caused extinctions we are experiencing today, a precautionary approach to creating healthier ecosystems means conserving large carnivores.

Beyond empiricism, scientists often operate based on instinct. Instinct led Darwin to dig more deeply into species adaptation and Leopold to doggedly delve into the effects of predator removal. For many of us who conduct trophic cascades science, our instincts are telling us that wolves should be conserved in as high a number in as many places as possible, due to the invaluable benefits they can bring to ecosystems. To do anything other than conserve wolves would be foolish, given all we’ve learned thus far.

ForewordFriday: Get Your Hands Dirty Edition

With spring finally starting to show its face, we’re thinking about everything that’s green and growing. But as Yvonne Baskin shows in Under Ground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World, we’d be nowhere without that most overlooked of substances: dirt. In the first chapter, she introduces an amazing world that holds two-thirds of the planet’s biodiversity, from gigantic fungi to ancient microbes that can live in boiling hot springs or under sheathes of polar ice. After reading it, you’ll never think “plain as dirt” again.

On Interning at Island Press: Wednesday Meetings

In this installment, Editorial Intern Alex Manasseri talks about her new favorite extracurricular activity.

For the past three years, I’ve experienced Washington, D.C. while immersed in a world of academia. My life has revolved around school; and in this way, my collegiate tasks have become my job, often involving reading an endless stream of articles, writing papers, giving presentations, and taking exams. This semester, however, I have had the pleasure of embarking on another journey. What I call my “job” is in fact quite different despite its office setting; and my experience working as an editorial intern at Island Press is more like a wonderful extracurricular activity than a strictly professional pursuit.

To say that interning at Island Press has been eye-opening would be an understatement. I’ve discovered that there is so much more to the organization than simply publishing books. In particular, the Editorial Department has a hand in so many aspects of the writing and developing process, from guiding the authors to clearer tables of contents and organizational structures within their manuscripts, to sitting down and pulling apart a chapter in order to ensure that it truly contributes to the overall value of the book. The care and consideration I see from the editors on a daily basis is inspiring; and I have the utmost respect for the heartfelt advice and extensive work they pour into each project. It doesn’t matter if they have been working with an author for a month or over two years – and their patience and perseverance is reflected in the exceptional content of Island Press’s books.

My favorite part, however, has come in the form of my two weekly meetings on Wednesdays. In the morning, I sit down with my two supervisors in the Editorial Department, and I get to be a part of the conversion about all of the current projects, from proposals to manuscripts already in the works. After this meeting concludes, I have a little time for some of my own assignments: reading over book proposals and writing reviews, contacting authors, assessing permissions for artwork, among other tasks. Then, finally, we have the main event: the week’s roundtable meeting.

At roundtable, projects that are under consideration are brought in, and each department gets to weigh in on the pros and cons of pursuing publication. It is absolutely fascinating to hear what each individual has to say about these books – from production costs, marketing strategies, and how the content of the book fits into Island Press’s mission for “Solutions that Inspire Change,” each and every participant provides valuable contextualization and advice for whether or not the book is the right fit. The mood is always friendly, and disagreements are encouraged; and there’s no shortage of witty banter preceding each discussion. No matter how serious the issue, these meetings give one the reassurance of the knowledge that the very best, most passionate environmentalists are giving it their all in the fight to bring about sustainable change.

Bumfuzzled by Epigenetics

Cross posted from Emily Monosson’s Evolution in a toxic world

Ding Dongs

While there is absolutely no scientific evidence is it possible that all those Ding Dongs I scarfed down in middle school could possible affect my future grandchildren?

This week at our local Toastmaster’s meeting the word of the day was bumfuzzeled. The challenge is to use it as much as possible that night.  As I struggled to give my two minute “Table Topic” an impromptu presentation about the paint color Tart Green – it was enough just to try and tell an entertaining story let alone work in a new word. But, as I write about epigenetics I can say without artifice that I am truly bumfuzzeled.

Thanks to genomics, we know that we are not solely the product of our genes but also of nature and nurture (and increasingly a whole slew of bacteria, viruses and who knows what else – but that’s another story). Epigenetics, altered gene expression caused by an environmental influence is a part of this new understanding. In this context, the nature and nurture environment can include stress, temperature, nutrition, even toxic chemicals. All of which have been shown, under certain conditions, to reach right in and jiggle the genetic code – causing certain genes to be turned on, or off.

Just as silent pauses in music influence how we hear a song or melody, genes too can be either silenced or turned on to great effect. What’s more, some epigenetic changes don’t just influence the expression of our own DNA, but can influence our children’s and our grandchildren’s gene expression. This is pretty wild if you think about it. There are several ways this can happen. One way is for molecular tags (methyl groups) to be added to the DNA, like pins in a clock timer – telling DNA when to turn off.

An increasing body of literature suggests that epigenetic influences may last a generation or two or even more depending on the species (in some plants epigenetic tags may stick for several generations).  For example studies are showing that a grandparent’s nutritional experience can influence their grandchildren’s health; possibly through epigenetic changes.  Biologically, and hypothetically, this sort of makes sense. If you have been struggling to make that Saber Tooth stew stretch, it may be a good thing to produce metabolically thrifty descendants.  But some toxic chemicals too can influence subsequent generations;not only the grandchildren but the great grands as well. Granted these studies to date have used concentrations of chemicals not relevant in the real world – but they certainly are suggestive. Could we inadvertently be jiggling the DNA of future generations with our modern day chemicals?

Where will this take us? I think about all the Yodels and Ding Dongs that I consumed back in the day, combining a sugar high with poor nutrition and quite possibly toxic chemicals. What if they influence future generations? Is this why my daughter craves an all white diet? What of her kids? Its enough to make one shudder. This is purely hypothetical of course. Scientists have not linked Ding Dongs to disease in grandchildren – though I wouldn’t be all that surprised if they did.

But you see where I’m going.  Epigenetics raises fascinating questions. And in the context of my current project (rapid evolution in a chemical world), one in particular looms large. Are epigenetic changes relevant to evolution? And can they be caused by environmental exposures to industrial age chemicals? If my diet influences my grandchildren and perhaps beyond –could my generation’s poor choices from diet, to climate change to toxic chemicals – influence human evolution?

There certainly is quite a bit of excitement about the prospect. Here are biologists David Crews and Andrea Gore writing about the topic: “Epigenetics is the next epoch in evolutionary theory, as these mechanisms alter heritability and force us to confront classical genetic ways of viewing the environment.” Psychology Today ran this headline, A Revolution in Evolution: a return to Lamarck?  While others get excited that Some Evolution May Not Depend on Genes. When it comes to evolution, it’s like Epigenetics is the new Black!

Yet as fascinating as many of these studies are, until we know more about the process we ought to proceed with some caution.

Think about it. One some level, it could certainly be beneficial to have this kind of genetic flexibility. Say if I were to move to the arctic wouldn’t it be great if my kids or grand kids were better adapted than I? Maybe stouter bodies or a little more insulation — they’d surely be grateful. But what if my kid decided southern Florida was more to her liking. So she moves there and starts a family. Would her kids be mal-adapted, thanks to me? Of course assuming there is still enough juice to power up the A/C in ten or fifteen years, the grand kids will survive. But consider the plight of wilder animals. While the ability to survive dramatic temperature shifts is a good thing – permanent change in response to temperature in an unpredictable world isn’t. Here is evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne:

…if the DNA code changed unpredictably back and forth each generation, natural selection and evolution wouldn’t work.  Second, there are also epigenetic changes that are induced not by the DNA sequence but by the environment. Temperature, starvation, and other environmental factors can cause methylation of the DNA as well.  The thing is, though, that such changes, because they’re rarely passed on to future generations, cannot serve as the basis of evolutionary change.  Such changes constitute true Lamarckian inheritance, i.e., the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

And lots of studies show us that Lamarckian inheritance doesn’t operate. Changes that are induced by the environment, or the organism’s “striving,” can’t somehow get incorporated into the DNA.…. My conclusion: if epigenetic changes are involved in an evolutionary adaptation, they must be coded for in the DNA rather than acquired from the environment alone…

So…. those Ding Dongs those of us of a certain age consumed in high school? Clearly not a great choice. But, even if they were to leave behind epigenetic marks influencing the health of my children’s children let’s hope that Coyne has it right. That they won’t change the course of human evolution; we’re leaving enough of a mess behind as it is, we don’t need to be messing with their genetic inheritance as well.

ForewordFriday: Chico Vive Edition

Island Press is pleased to be co-sponsoring the 2104 Chico Vive conference at American University in DC this weekend. The conference brings together grassroots activists, NGOs, students, engaged scholars, applied scientists, policymakers, journalists, and others to discuss the development of the global grassroots environmental movement in the 25 years since environmental martyr Chico Mendes’ death. As an introduction to issue, this week’s Foreword Friday offering is the beginning of environmental reporter Andrew Revkin’s The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest. In this selection, Revkin ponders the historical importance of Mendes’ murder and takes his reader into the tense December days surrounding his death. If you enjoy this excerpt, keep in mind that the full e-book is $4.99 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and your local indie bookstore now through April 30th.