Fuck zoos

When I was young, I loved the zoo and don’t recall ever being sad about the animals. I can even remember the name of the white tiger at my city’s zoo. Those warm memories don’t change how I view zoos today. I’d like to think if someone would’ve gotten me to think about it as a child, I would’ve had more ambivalence. A simple “hey isn’t this place kind of like a prison for animals?” or “how would you like to be locked up for the rest of your life?” might have sufficed. But maybe not.

Humans want to see nonhumans animals whenever they want to. Zoos and aquaria (collectively referred to as zoos from this point forward) provide this. This is the primary reason people visit them. All other rationales are subordinate. No one says, “I’m going to take my kids to this specific zoo because of the good conservation work they do,” or because “the animals are happy and wish to see us” (though I wouldn’t be surprised if some people think this). Some may believe in the educational benefits for themselves and their kids. But overall, if they’re being honest, they just want to see the animals.

This is not a reason that zoos wish for people to have, as it leaves them open to the criticism that their industry is more appropriately categorized as entertainment. They crave moral legitimacy in a way that is reminiscent of corporate greenwashing and are every bit as grotesque as any stereotypically evil corporation in their virtue signaling (although I admit this is very debatable). This is necessary, because since the 1980’s, entities that utilize aspects of nature for material benefit need to show their consumers that they are other than what they truly are. They’ve realized a certain segment of consumers need to feel good about their purchases. These warm and fuzzy feelings are economically valuable enough to offset the money spent. However, this can lead to difficult decisions:

Adding to the tension over what the mission of the zoo of the future should be is that zoo directors are often torn between their desire to promote animal welfare and their desire to increase profits.

Often, these difficult decisions are a manner of life and death. On occasions when stories bubble to the surface, zoos need to be ever mindful of public perception. Ethical dents in the armor need smoothing out, lest they become weak points vulnerable to attack by animal rights extremists. There are broad differences between locales in their approaches to public relations. Americans, for example, are more squeamish about killing animals than their European counterparts. In response to the euthanization of a giraffe in a Danish zoo, American zoo proponents were distraught, but not over the actual being that lost its life. From the New Yorker:

As Terry Maple [former director of Zoo Atlanta] put it, “If it hadn’t affected the rest of us, I’m sure we would have thought, That’s a pretty eccentric decision. But when you begin to see how it moves the people who support you—when they’re in tears, and they just can’t believe this—it starts to undermine the credibility of zoos, which have to be justified, have to be supported by the public.”

[…]

Asked several times if culling occurs in American zoos, Rob Vernon, a spokesman for AZA [Association of Zoos & Aquariums], told me, variously, “No,” “Yes,” and “That’s a good question.” He made the candid observation that his own discomfort reflected the industry’s discomfort.

American zoos do cull, and AZA rules allow it. Maple told me, “I would have never done it, most of my colleagues in the United States would have never done it.” He immediately added, “But when you get below the example of a charismatic mega-vertebrate”—a storybook species—“and go to animals that are a little less special, there are cases of killing.” He recalled Zoo Atlanta euthanizing dozens of newborn pythons with his blessing. Maple has written, critically, of “taxonomic élitism” in zoos, but, in an apparent attempt to diminish the act of snake-killing, he described the pythons to me as slithery and mean. [emphasis added]

The Danish Zoo’s primary sin was letting their embarrassing story gain widespread notoriety, something that appeared to mystify them: per the Wikipedia article linked to above, “the amount of international interest had come as a surprise to the zoo.” American zoos prefer culling to happen out of sight and unaccounted for by the public – I wasn’t able to find anything related to killing those slithery and mean pythons in the Atlanta zoo. Further on in the New Yorker article is discussion of research by David Powell, a mammologist at the St. Louis Zoo, that sheds a bit of light:

He asked thirty-three zoos about their culling practices (promising not to name them). In a co-written paper, he reported that forty-five per cent of the zoos had said they were euthanizing healthy animals; in this cohort, seventy-nine per cent were culling mammals.

[P]owell said he was confident that these percentages would hold up in a larger sample. He added that AZA’s statement about Marius [the giraffe] was “unfortunate.” Powell’s paper didn’t include specific examples of species that had been culled by the surveyed zoos. But he had the data on his computer. He opened the file and read from the screen: “Python . . . deer . . . invertebrates . . . ‘Ungulates as needed’ . . . ‘Fish or amphibians only’ . . . Guinea pigs . . . ‘Hoofed animals’ . . . rodents . . . wallabies . . . ‘domestic mammals’ . . . and a tiger.” [emphasis added]

***

Humans have been taking wild animals and confining them (outside of the context of animal husbandry) since the dawn of civilization. The practice arose in the walled cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. Since, they have recurred in many locations, where trade networks allowed for the importation of exotic animals from faraway lands. The purpose for this varies across location and time – from mere gazing, to fighting each other or humans, to performing tricks. For the most part, though, kings, heads of state, and the affluent have been the primary offenders, enthusiastically flaunting their wealth and power with menageries.

These collections of animals have been subject to continual evolution, an unfinished process that has given form to the zoos we recognize today, where everyone has access to the animals. They range from the large, AZA accredited zoos in major cities, to roadside zoos and wildlife parks/safaris. It’s only in the last century that zoo owners and employees began to make attempts to enhance the lives of their charges.1 This shouldn’t be seen as completely altruistic – an animal performing “normal” activities provides a better experience for viewers than pacing, staring into space, or displaying unusual or disturbing behaviors.

There is a plethora on research into stressed animals in zoos, but most of it occurs within the paradigm of animal welfare, where welfare takes confinement as an unquestioned given – the goal is to enhance/enrich the lives of those unlucky enough to be in captivity. The research is necessary, because it turns out confined animals exhibit many abnormal behaviors which have been defined under a number of terms, including zoochosis, stereotypy, and abnormal repetitive behavior.

In short, confinement is absolutely a major stress in many of the animals. It should be obvious that the surefire way to reduce these problems would be to eliminate their common denominator. But, you might say, many, if not most of these animals are no longer able to live in the wild. And certainly, there are valid concerns about reintroducing them to threatened, altered, or destroyed habitats.

However, there are solutions. The capture of wild animals could cease. Existing animals could go to animal sanctuaries. Or, better, zoos would convert into animal sanctuaries, which are nonprofit organizations and solely focused on the well-being of the animals:

An animal sanctuary is a facility where animals are brought to live and be protected for the rest of their lives. Unlike animal shelters, sanctuaries do not seek to place animals with individuals or groups, instead maintaining each animal until his or her natural death. […] The mission of sanctuaries is generally to be safe havens, where the animals receive the best care that the sanctuaries can provide. Animals are not bought, sold, or traded, nor are they used for animal testing. The resident animals are given the opportunity to behave as natural as possible in a protective environment.

What distinguishes a sanctuary from other institutions is the philosophy that the residents come first. In a sanctuary, every action is scrutinized for any trace of human benefit at the expense of non-human residents.

[…]

A sanctuary is not open to the public in the sense of a zoo; that is, the public is not allowed unescorted access to any part of the facility. A sanctuary tries not to allow any activity that would place the animals in an unduly stressful situation.2

(Any “sanctuary” that does not conform to these basic ideals should not be regarded as one, even if it’s in their title or promotional materials)

It might not take all that long for the end of zoos as we know them, were they to fundamentally alter their operations. In Derrick Jensen’s book Thought to Exist in the Wild,3 he quotes the historians Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier:

Theoretically…zoos could be closed just by calling a halt to their supply of animals for four to six years; at the end of that time, only a few veterans would remain…In actual fact, the extreme mortality of wild animals in zoos has always been the driving force behind the massive scale of importations.

It’s hard to tell what’s more depressing: capture from the wild or never knowing a wild existence. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier’s book was published in 1998 and is the only source I could find that includes research on the prevalence of wild animal capture.4 One would think that zoos would loudly tout their non-reliance on captured animals if that were truly the case. But, not surprisingly, this is information that is shrouded in secrecy and not made available for general public consumption.

Zoos will not go quietly into the night. They have every incentive to ensure their continued existence and will use any means and justifications to safeguard their social standing. Stifling unfavorable stories from filtering into public consciousness is essential, as is providing appropriate spin when they are unable to stop a leak from occurring. This is combined with their primary marketing weapons: education and conservation.

***

Research into zoos educating the public and instilling warm and fuzzy feelings towards animals, nature, and the importance of conservation is disparate and there is no consensus for its validity. Broadly, some research say the effects are real with learning and conservation-consciousness being gained. Some say no, not really. Zoos are adamant this is the case. This is summed up by Lori Gruen, Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University and author of The Ethics of Captivity:

[T]here has been no proof that keeping animals in zoos has actually increased the conservation interests of the people who visit zoos. There was a 2007 report, conducted by the AZA, that alleged there was an impact, but the methodology of the report was widely criticized.

More recently, Marc Bekoff, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, highlighted a study from 2014 that was neither peer-reviewed nor published in any journal, but was lauded in various media outlets as proof of the positive effects of going to the zoo:

The “proof” provided by this study is a mixed bag. Many people have jumped on the bandwagon claiming something like, “See, we were right and zoo critics were wrong, zoos do educate people.” However, the increase “in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding” as noted in the report (my emphasis on the word “some”) was only slightly more than 5 percent of a large sample [from 69.1% pre-visit to 75.1% post-visit], and in no way does it show that what people learn about biodiversity really means anything at all about how they then contribute to future conservation efforts.5

That there might be educational benefits to zoos is extremely underwhelming as a compelling rationale for their existence. Moreover, it’s abstract to the point of absurdity, as if “awareness of conservation” in children can in any way be meaningfully correlated to real world effects, as Bekoff noted. What exactly would the road map look like that connects zoos, the children and adults they educate, and actual effective conservation that is the result of that education?

Granting zoos the undeserved reputation of being the sole catalyst for the desire to learn, the acquisition of information, and for cultivating warm and fuzzy feelings toward nonhuman life is completely baseless, and the above referenced studies that espouse these views don’t seem to take other influences into account. Children are bombarded with adorably cute animals in the form of entertainment since birth. As they grow older, they learn about animals in school. Information can be found in all manner of books, television and the internet.

While one can learn about and be in awe of animals in zoos, some (I would argue most) will consciously or unconsciously learn the idea that humans have the unquestioned right to dominate the biosphere as we best see fit. They may even gain a false sense of security about the state of things based on their awareness of the supposedly great conservation work done by zoos. I think these are huge problems and should be taken into account and contrasted with the supposed education provided by these entities.

To my knowledge, these crucial aspects of zoos are not discussed with children in any kind of research (also unasked is how the children feel about the fact that the animals they see are forced to be where they are for their enjoyment). None of this is surprising. Questioning human domination isn’t something I’d expect to see addressed in a meaningful way within the context of zoos, an institution that is as stark an example as one can find – think of the absurdity of animals from the African savannah forced to live in frigid Canadian zoos.

If one accepts the notion that, at minimum, zoos foster respect for nature, they have utterly failed in transforming that respect into meaningful, positive real-world affects. This is an inescapable conclusion, of which there is little need to belabor. Most of the developed world has citizens who’ve been to zoos, going back at least a century – citizens that have played a disproportionate role in the continuing destruction of the biosphere, both actively and passively. Why would a new generation of children exposed to zoos be any different than previous generations? And if they do change things for the better (however that can be defined), the influence that zoos have will be difficult to quantify. Though, no doubt, they will wish to be given credit.

***

Here I will pause in my excoriation of zoos and highlight their conservation efforts. This seems like it should be an unmitigated good, but it is not without its own issues. The fact that humans have rendered so much of the globe uninhabitable for so many animals absolutely warrants attempts to help solve the problems we’ve created. That some zoos appear to do good work in the conservation sphere is commendable, and I don’t want to completely minimize their efforts.

For example, captive breeding of the endangered California condor at the San Diego Zoo has helped stave off extinction, at least so far anyways.6 However, there are other entities that do similar work, and don’t need a prison brimming with other animals to do so. As another example, numerous non-profits work toward saving whooping cranes (though I should note zoos do provide money and medical services towards these efforts). These are good things.

On the whole, though, I don’t think it’s fair to say that non-zoo conservation efforts would cease without zoo involvement and support. Unfortunately, it’s pretty difficult to disentangle the percentage of work zoos do in the conservation sphere versus non-zoo affiliated organizations, making it impossible to know how much they contribute. However, I can’t dispute that they definitely add to the totality.

Whether or not their additions are effective is a question without an answer. It should not be taken as a given that any entity claiming to do conservation is doing a good job, whether its connected to a zoo or not. An overarching theme to consider is what constitutes effective conservation work, and how to quantify this:

For far too long, conservation scientists and practitioners have depended on intuition and anecdote to guide the design of conservation investments. If we want to ensure that our limited resources make a difference, we must accept that testing hypotheses about what policies protect biological diversity requires the same scientific rigor and state-of-the-art methods that we invest in testing ecological hypotheses. Our understanding of the ecological aspects of ecosystem conservation rests, in part, on well-designed empirical studies. In contrast, our understanding of the way in which policies can prevent species loss and ecosystem degradation rests primarily on case-study narratives from field initiatives that are not designed to answer the question “Does the intervention work better than no intervention at all?”

When it comes to evaluating the success of its interventions, the field of ecosystem protection and biodiversity conservation lags behind most other policy fields (e.g., poverty reduction, criminal rehabilitation, disease control)

[…]

In the field of program evaluation, one lesson is paramount: you cannot overcome poor quality with greater quantity. We cannot learn from thousands of projects if none of these projects is designed in a way that permits an evaluation of its effectiveness. The results from a handful of well-designed individual tests can provide much more useful guidance than thousands of well-intentioned but poorly designed projects. In a field that takes the design and implementation of its initiatives seriously, we should expect to see greater value placed on evaluating the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Leaving the tenuous state of measuring conservation effectiveness aside, is zoo-funded conservation possible without the considerable weight of a zoo’s ability to marshal personnel, money and resources towards conservation projects within the context of their lucrative economic infrastructure? Probably not. Is it necessary to confine animals to generate revenue that can be used for conservation? Probably. Without widespread public patronage the money would simply not be there. Without animals to see, income would significantly decline, and there would be less funds for conservation.

In 2015, the total revenue for US zoos was $2.6 billion. It is unknown what percentage of this actually goes toward conservation. A National Geographic article from 2003 quotes a former zoo director saying that “less than 3 percent of the budgets of these 212 accredited zoos go toward conservation efforts.” The AZA estimates $216 million spent per year on conservation by accredited zoos. If that figure and the $2.6 billion in revenue from 2015 is accurate, that comes to around 8%. Of course, this is an extremely crude attempt to arrive at an answer, but there aren’t any specific data for this that I’m aware of. Regardless, it’s telling that the AZA lists neither revenue nor percentage spent on conservation. If they felt either were compelling evidence for the altruistic nature of zoos they would surely mention it.

A good consequentialist might say that if zoo support for conservation leads to more land for wild animals, and an increased chance of survival for endangered species, it is a good thing. I would counter that they are not considering the negative aspects of zoos I’ve highlighted. Moreover, we are unable to say for sure how good zoos actually are at conservation.

I also can’t help but note that conservation and education are secondary justifications for the continued confinement of wild animals that are grafted onto the primary reason: people want to see animals whenever they want. In the unlikely event that conservation efforts succeed beyond our wildest dreams, zoos probably won’t close – they are not looking towards a future that does not contain them. If that’s true, and I see no reason why it’s not, these institutions are anything but benevolent and are ultimately using conservation to serve their own interests, to the detriment of the countless animals they imprison. I’d also add that there is something truly revolting about certain unlucky animals being forced to pay the ultimate price, all in the service of solving problems they played literally zero part in creating.

***

I don’t think any animal should be forced to be in a position where it can’t avoid you, just so you can gawk at it, learn things about it that can be found in any number of different places, or bask in the unwarranted belief that its imprisonment is necessary to help wild animals. I operate under the assumption that a specific organism wishes to do things that are the result of the accumulation of millennia of evolutionary adaptations specific to their species – and being able to do so in the general environment where that species is found. Hindering this via captivity for human desires (not needs) is selfish, fucked up, and perpetuates the relatively unquestioned and indefensible cultural narrative of humanity as benevolent rulers of the earth (we can thank Western religions for this, but Western science and philosophy are also culpable). This narrative is increasingly in need of moral justifications for obvious reasons. Not too long ago, such attempts were unnecessary, and the righteousness of our domination was implicitly understood by the general populace: abiotic phenomena and nonhuman animals are ours to do with what we please.

You want to see a lion? Tough shit, I’d say if it were up to me. Of course, wild lions can be seen if you live near their natural habitats. If you don’t, you can travel there, though this is, of course, something only available to the wealthy. I acknowledge this isn’t very fair. But seeing a bored lion in a tiny, grotesque facsimile of their homeland shouldn’t get to be the consolation prize.

Lion at the Rosamund Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY (their address is 1 Conservation Place, which is depressingly hilarious), via The Dodo

That anyone could see penguins in a makeshift “habitat” aimlessly wandering around, read or have a small amount of information presented, and take more from that than the video embedded below (from Planet Earth II, via Time), which captures both the beauty and brutality of nature, is cultural insanity.

Penguins at the Detroit Zoo, via Travel + Leisure

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I have little doubt that if the world were a better place for nonhuman animals, zoos would still exist. I can see the justification now: there are so many giraffes, wolves, seals, etc. that it doesn’t matter if we confine a few (that it would matter to those specific animals is and always has been irrelevant). Human greed can always find way.

Many fervently believe that children need to see certain animals in person in order to develop a sense of empathy for their plight in the Anthropocene. And there may be some validity to that. But there are actual wild animals in our midst, even in cities, which largely go unnoticed, that is, if they’re not regarded as pests. Sure, they’re not as exotic and awe-inspiring as charismatic megafauna from other continents, but they are our neighbors, and intrinsically as worthy of respect and curiosity. I would argue it’s much more interesting to watch sparrows doing sparrow things, than a bored animal in a pathetic representation of its habitat staring off into space or playing infantile games designed by humans to mitigate boredom. Unfortunately, I do realize this is a hard sell to most.

I wonder if it would be sufficient to explain to children, in simple language, the reasons why one might be against zoos and why animal confinement is problematic. For example, my wife, an animal-lover though not as virulently anti-zoo as I, told me about a discussion in the 5th grade class she teaches centered on the book The One and Only Ivan (which I had never heard of, and is about the true story of caged animals living at a mall). Basically, the kids were not okay with this. However, they weren’t able to, nor were asked to think about, how their feelings on the book contrasted with their general affinity for zoos and why caging Ivan in a mall is wrong, while caging animals in zoos is not. It’s likely that parents wouldn’t have been too keen on this and, overall, I’m not sure the general public will be receptive to this line of thinking anytime soon.

I hope one day zoos go the way of SeaWorld and the circus. More so than the latter, they are an ingrained part of society, for better or worse. The preceding has made clear that I see it as more for the worse, but I realize this point of view is in the minority. Zoos are cheap, convenient, profitable, and popular. Anti-zoo zealots such as myself are likely seen as PETA-adjacent lunatics, caring more about nonhuman animals than actual humans. Then again, this is probably what people thought about with regards to SeaWorld before Blackfish. If a paradigm shift ever were to occur, people will likely wonder how and why it took so long.


1. I’m sure many zookeepers, handlers and technicians care about the animals. Some probably think they have special relationships with them. And I really don’t give a shit. They are part of the problem. I am reluctant to compare human prisoners to nonhuman prisoners, but at least prison guards have reason to think the inmates are guilty of something that necessitated their imprisonment. There are zero reasons for zoo workers to think this.

2. It should be noted that the AZA has been openly hostile to sanctuaries in the past, making this suggestion something of a pipe dream:

To dissuade accredited zoos from endorsing sanctuaries — as the Detroit and Milwaukee zoos had done — the [AZA] adopted harsh punishments designed to hurt zoos’ bottom lines.

This summer, the AZA used that power when Toronto City Council members voted to shut down the zoo’s elephant exhibit and retire three African elephants to the California sanctuary. Council members decided that captivity was harmful.

The zoo association revoked Toronto’s accreditation, preventing the exchange of animals with other accredited zoos.

But the association does allow zoos to give their unwanted elephants to circuses, where breeding can occur.

That the AZA had a more favorable view towards circuses than sanctuaries is very revealing. However, this article was from 2012. Last year, one sanctuary was accredited as a “Related Facility” Another sanctuary was accredited in 2011. Though this is publicized on their website, they aren’t currently on the AZA’s list. With animal-centered circuses dying, perhaps zoos are more amenable to coordinating with their ideological enemies – it’s probably becoming a more attractive option than running the risk of animal cull stories reaching the public.

3. Jensen’s book contains gut-wrenching stories of wild animal capture/imprisonment through the past century in the hunters’ own words, as well as tragic accounts of bought, sold, loaned and discarded animals. Very common themes include destroyed familial relationships, exposure to trauma, and sickening cruelty. Here’s one particularly gruesome example:

William Hampton, the owner of another AAZPA-accredited [now known as the AZA] zoo, came up with an even more ingenious money-making scheme. For several years he bought and traded U.S. zoo animals, until a member of a local humane society discovered a fenced compound with crates bearing the names of major zoos from across the country. Peter Batten describes what happened next: “Further investigation revealed a trailer filled with the putrefying remains of dismembered animals and led to the discovery that Hampton and his associates had systematically slaughtered surplus zoo animals, skinned them, and sold heads and pelts as wall trophies. Living evidence was provided by American alligators, found with jaws taped and starving to assure unblemished hides for eventual sale.”

This example, and other grotesque anecdotes described by Jensen largely occurred before 1990 (but not all). This may give enough wiggle room for zoo proponents to claim that things are surely better. But then again, there doesn’t seem to be evidence to the contrary aside from zoo propaganda. Make no mistake, there are horror stories behind the sanitized spaces open to the public. It takes investigative work to uncover them, and it doesn’t always lead to media attention. Unfortunately, bringing these stories to light is getting even more difficult in the US:

Two weeks into the Trump Administration, thousands of documents detailing animal welfare violations nationwide have been removed from the website of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been posting them publicly for decades. These are the inspection records and annual reports for every commercial animal facility in the U.S.—including zoos, breeders, factory farms, and laboratories.

These records have revealed many cases of abuse and mistreatment of animals, incidents that, if the reports had not been publicly posted, would likely have remained hidden. This action plunges journalists, animal welfare organizations, and the public at large into the dark about animal welfare at facilities across the country.

4. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier also demolish the idea that animals in zoos live longer than their wild counterparts. This is worth a brief mention, but no more – even if the reverse were true, a long life obviously doesn’t correlate to living a good life.

5. If you click on the link to the study, note the visitor survey they utilize. It includes a section in which respondents are to write what “comes to mind when you think of biodiversity” before and after visits, and if they can “think of an action that you could take to help save animal species.” None of the raw data appears to be available and it would be interesting to see some of the answers. For example, there is a pie chart labeled “Categorisation of self‑reported post‑visit actions or behaviours to help protect biodiversity,” that contains 11 slices. The second largest portion is “other related comment;” the largest slice is “Recycling and Waste Management” (which surely could’ve been learned elsewhere). I wonder what these “other related comments” were, especially since they evidently weren’t able to easily categorize them.

I have other critiques, but this post is already long enough as it is. Nonetheless, it seems that, given the statistics referenced above, there is already a not insignificant amount of “positive evidence of biodiversity understanding” present before the visit to the zoo. That being said, the presentation is a very slick and impressive looking piece of propaganda.

6. Far less than half of the animals in zoos are from endangered species. However, the AZA has a Species Survival Plan (SSP) program which many zoos participate in. The program “aims to manage the breeding of specific endangered species in order to help maintain healthy and self-sustaining populations that are both genetically diverse and demographically stable” (the article, from Scientific American, is weirdly undated and no author is listed leading me to think it’s hidden sponsored content). The goal of many, but not all, SSP’s is “is the reintroduction of captive-raised endangered species into their native wild habitats.” There doesn’t appear to be any objective research into the efficacy of these programs, but I’m a bit less cynical about them – attempting to save endangered species is good. But countless variables need to be taken into account for every particular situation in determining what does and doesn’t work. There are criticisms, and it shouldn’t be taken as an article of faith that these programs are effective.

Note that animal sanctuaries theoretically would be able to perform these activities, but with an added component of breeding, and all that that entails. However, money would certainly be an issue if the public weren’t guaranteed to actually see the animals were they to visit.

It shouldn’t matter if we can ever truly know if lobsters feel pain

Switzerland recently banned the boiling of live lobsters. However, the debate still rages: do they actually feel pain? We broadly think that animals closely related to us can. This extends to mammals, and to a lesser extent birds. But the issue is murkier with the rest of the animal kingdom. It begs the question of when and in what species did pain evolve? Or, if it evolved multiple times, is there more than one lineage that contain animals which experience something like pain?

I think that there is something it is like to be a lobster. Perhaps I am taking it as an article of faith. Although I would counter that by saying that denial cannot be a more accurate hypothesis than mine. Neither hypothesis can ever be empirically known. As Thomas Nagel (who I would imagine isn’t too revered around these parts) writes in What Is It Like To Be A Bat:

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.

If anyone is inclined to deny that we can believe in the existence of facts like this whose exact nature we cannot possibly conceive, he should reflect that in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us: that only certain general types of mental state could be ascribed to us (perhaps perception and appetite would be concepts common to us both; perhaps not). We know they would be wrong to draw such a skeptical conclusion because we know what it is like to be us.

Bats are one thing – they, like we, are mammals. For contemporary organisms in the arthropod phylum, we are even further away from having a common ancestor, probably by around 500-600 million years. For lobsters in particular, if there is something it is like to be one, there are even less means of conceptualizing what those experiences are like than there are for bats. One idea was put forth by Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka. They theorize that primordial inner states were akin to being suffused in white noise:

The unavoidable consequence of all the sensations that result from the incessant and persistent neural stimulation of the animal’s external and internal sensors is a global by-product of neural activity we call “overall sensation.” We suggest, by way of metaphor, that it is a kind of “white-noise sensation”—a weak, completely functionless, and meaningless side-effect of an interconnected sensory-motor system, which is dynamically processing electrical and chemical signals triggered by sensors, communicated to effectors, sent back to sensors again, and so on.

They stress that this “white noise” is initially functionless, but could be the “raw material for the first types of experiencing.” This is, of course, imperfect, as white noise contains both visual and auditory components, neither of which were available to early life in the time period they discuss. But one can theorize what attempted predations and other injuries produced in these nascent inner states – perhaps it is akin to a jolt of electricity that disturbs the relatively static background. Current species of lobsters have evolved from these ancient experiencers for as long as we have temporally. Neural networks are continually refined and integrated, and perhaps they experience something more than the “white noise” of their ancestors.

Just as I think there is something it is like to be a lobster, I also believe they experience their own form of pain. An either/or conception of nonhuman pain is possibly inaccurate, but I’m going to take it as a given: either they do or don’t experience pain. As I wrote in an earlier blog, every living organism – sentient or nonsentient, conscious or nonconscious – is an entity comprised of molecules that resist entropy. The resistance of entropy doesn’t entail that pain is felt by every biological entity, especially if we attempt to fit the concept of pain into parameters defined by human experience. While we may hypothesize correlates given that we are evolutionarily related to every organism, it’s truly something we can never “know.” Indeed, one can never “know” the person sitting next to them experiences pain – the only pain internally experienced is one’s own.

Most animals experience nociception, a recognition of tissue damage, that sometimes includes reflexive actions. This is not the same thing as pain, but they are related. Pain can be described as nociception combined with an inner state, such that the experiencer feels stress that is particular to that organism’s genetic and neurological design. One could also go further and attempt to connect nociception and pain to suffering, but I’m content to stop at pain.

Again, granted my belief that there is something it is like to be a lobster, is there a noetic distinction between its internal state when it’s hanging out in its natural habitat, as opposed to being subjected to nociception, like being placed in boiling water? If one accepts that lobsters have some kind of inner life, I don’t see how the answer can be anything but yes, since different environmental stimuli leads to different behaviors that can readily be observed. I don’t think it’s too wild to say one state is probably “better” for the lobster than the other and, moreover, that they have an internal preference that is influenced by pain.

The amount of research that’s been performed to answer the question of pain, and whether or not different animals experience it is kind of mystifying to me (Descartes is an eminently worthy scapegoat). While human observations can lead to evidence-based conjecture, we can never truly know. It seems like a waste of time, and pretty cruel when experimentation involves harming animals. However, research that provides evidence for pain may lead to a large-scale shift in attitude. For example, Victoria Braithwaite’s research on fish entails cruelty, which is something I don’t really care for, but could lead to less overall suffering by changing cultural attitudes. Maybe. I’m a bit skeptical. On a personal note, when I purchased Braithwaite’s book, Do Fish Feel Pain?, the person who checked me out had a good laugh at the mere idea. So there’s probably a ways to go.

Some people couldn’t care less whether nonhuman animals feel pain, but some may. For the latter group, I don’t get why one wouldn’t err on the side of caution and do what they can to mitigate causing potential pain to another organism they’re utilizing (as distinct from causing pain as a byproduct of a conflict with another organism). If it is true they do not feel pain, then the efforts to lessen pain don’t matter. But since we’ll never know, and there’s a nonzero chance that they DO experience pain that is specific to each species, maybe we should try to stop being assholes. For lobsters and other aquatic organisms whose populations are continuing to be decimated by overfishing and climate change, the least we can do is give them relatively painless deaths in the service of feeding our insatiability.

Remember the gulf oil spill?

In 2010, I completed a second degree in Environmental Science and was hopelessly looking for a full time job. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for the planet, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened. A hydrogeology professor put me in touch with a colleague that worked for a company hired by BP to perform a Natural Resources Damage Assessment. Next to no interview was necessary – they were basically looking for warm bodies.

I worked two and a half weeks on, and two and a half weeks off for 3 months. Each cycle began with my arrival to New Orleans. I would then rent a car and drive an hour west to the de facto command center. There were hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people everywhere representing dozens of different entities, a hive of activity buzzing 24/7. Once I received my gear and list of tasks, I headed out to the hotel, guest house, or bed and breakfast owned by an old racist [1] that was booked by the company’s logistics team. The following days would send me all over south central Louisiana, and Lake Pontchartrain looking for oil and taking various samples (water, oil, vegetation, beach sediment, etc.) at predetermined locations.

The days were long, usually 14-18 hours. The heat was unconscionable to a northerner such as myself. I ate greasy, unhealthy food, and decided to stop being vegetarian due to the lack of options, fatigue and a general “fuck it” attitude. And there was loneliness. I’m not a phone person in the best of circumstances, and this being my primary means of communication with my wife put a strain on the marriage.

All the while, I was obsessing over how long the job would last, how to find a full-time job back home, and what the hell I was going to do if I didn’t find one. In retrospect, it would’ve been a great situation if I were younger and single. But edging closer to 30, it was not something I was able to deal with psychologically and emotionally.

The boat captains and crew (usually charter fishermen) that I worked with were understandably not happy. While they were compensated by BP in the short term, there was considerable apprehension as to what the future would hold. What would the oil to do the resources they depend on? Would tourists, their source of income, still come? How long until they get to stop driving in circles in the service of remediation and monitoring of a tragedy they had no part in creating? It made my personal anxiety seem cheap by comparison.

On the other hand, I knew the Gulf was big, but seeing it first-hand was awe-inspiring. Flying around on fishing boats, seeing dolphins leaping and pelicans diving, one could easily forget the catastrophe that led to my being there in the first place. Once I got over being seasick, it was pretty cool.

During my time, I have to say I didn’t see very much oil. That was good for my psyche – witnessing oiled wildlife definitely would’ve haunted me for the rest of my life.

To my knowledge, the NRDA I participated in has not been released, either because it’s not ready or because it’s not intended to be released to the public. Probably the latter. However, the government released their NRDA a little under two years ago.

***

A few weeks back, my wife and I visited her parents in New Orleans. The final day of the trip we went on a tour of the marshes south of Houma, the general area of where my first stint was. It’s pretty crazy that the tour we went on is the only one in the area. Most tours are in the bayous north of the salt marshes. The primary tourist activity in and south of them is charter fishing. Perusing some of the rates, it’s no wonder that none of the boat captains are willing to explore mere sightseeing.

The tour was great, but served as a reminder of the negative effects of offshore drilling. The guide didn’t bring up the oil spill, and I didn’t press the issue – I thought it might be a touchy subject. But she had some choice words for the ample consequences of canal-making and maintenance by the oil industry. The chief concerns are flooding and saltwater intrusion. The wetlands have been crucial in limiting both, but “the local cuts and nicks, one acre at a time” are continuing to wreak devastation.

There are other effects as well, some that we could see. Any time one spends time in nature, they are usually blissfully unaware that things might not be great. There could be invasive species, endangered native species, or unseen pollution. To the untrained or uneducated eye, it’s hard to know.

In the salt marshes, as the tour guide helpfully pointed out, the deciduous vegetation lining some of the canals is not native to the area. The excavations, dumped onto the adjacent riparian areas, exposed the dredged muck which allowed long dormant but still viable seeds from upstream to germinate. Obviously I wouldn’t have known this if it weren’t pointed out to me, but the tepid autumn colors of the deciduous trees look very out of place in this region and serve as visual evidence that things aren’t right.

***

The relationship between the petroleum industry is, as it is everywhere oil can be found in the US, complicated. To distill the complications to their essence, it provides jobs but wrecks the environment (profound, I know). Those obtaining monetary rewards care only as much as it affects their bottom line (again, very profound).

Louisiana, as opposed to other locales, has a different relationship with the oil industry [2]. Offshore drilling in California, for example, has been met with widespread protest over the last century. Other areas of the country with shorelines that can be used for amenities (or picturesque enough for private ownership by the obscenely wealthy) are less likely to view offshore drilling as desirable. But in Louisiana, this hasn’t been the case for several reasons:

  • Louisiana’s southern coast contains the most extensive coastal marshlands in the US. Most Louisianans live miles from the coast, and much of it is only accessible by boat. Many have never even seen it.
  • Louisiana has historically been an area of the country where extractive industries reign supreme. In the middle part of the last century when offshore drilling was ramping up, locals were more likely to see it as just another type of industry they were already familiar with – after all, nature is a gift from God to do with as we please.
  • The ubiquity of the oil industry has ensured that just about every family contains one or more members that are employed directly or tangentially. It is a vital component of their local economy.

What brought on the spill, simplistically speaking, was pure hubris. Safety measures were ignored. Federal oversight was lax. The lack of recent catastrophes encouraged personnel to rest on their laurels, exacerbated by the fact that doing so saves money in the short term. Astoundingly, the means of dealing with the spill when it occurred were virtually the same as those used decades ago:

  • Capturing oil via containment booms. They are every bit as pathetic as they look. I recall seeing many a ship drive around aimlessly with their boom up and wondering how the hell they would be of any use.

https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0611/Containment-boom-effort-comes-up-short-in-BP-oil-spill

BP had the foolish belief that nothing bad will ever happen, and they’re certainly not the only oil company who has this point of view. It is endemic to extractive, environmentally destructive entities. Problems can be dealt with when they happen. Hopefully the state of remediation is better now than it was then – especially with Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge edging closer to being opened for drilling.

***

Obviously the oil spill was bad in the short term. But 7-8 years on, how are things? The most recent comprehensive paper I could find was from last year. From it’s abstract:

Research demonstrates that oiling caused a wide range of biological effects, although worst-case impact scenarios did not materialize. Biomarkers in individual organisms were more informative about oiling stress than population and community indices. Salt marshes and seabird populations were hard hit, but were also quite resilient to oiling effects. Monitoring demonstrated little contamination of seafood. Certain impacts are still understudied, such as effects on seagrass communities. Concerns of long-term impacts remain for large fish species, deep-sea corals, sea turtles and cetaceans. These species and their habitats should continue to receive attention (monitoring and research) for years to come.

So the best that can be said is the worst case scenario was avoided. Hooray! That’s good PR for BP – they should use it in their marketing. And so we march on, racing inexorably towards exhausting a nonrenewable resource that, while making lives easier and more convenient for some, is wrecking our planet in so many different ways. On a lighter note, consider seeing the salt marshes of Louisiana. You won’t be disappointed.


[1] The casual, open racism was quite a shock compared to the thinly-veiled Midwestern variety I’m used to.

[2] The following information in the section comes from Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America by William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling. It came out within a year of the spill and the title is extremely misleading. The “future of energy” takes up around 10 pages, with the bulk of the book providing the historical and sociological contexts that led to and even predicted a spill like this to occur. It was a worthwhile read, though it contained numerous grammatical errors – pretty obvious is the fact they were in a rush to publish. Nevertheless, I would’ve thought MIT Press wouldn’t be so lax in their editing.

This seems like a big deal

The folks at Big Science are again putting humanity on blast. Twenty-five years ago, they issued a dire warning, one that hasn’t resulted in sustained, meaningful results:

Twenty-five years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, penned the 1992 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” (see supplemental file S1). These concerned professionals called on humankind to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of their call, we look back at their warning and evaluate the human response by exploring available time-series data. Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.

Is it too much to ask our beloved leaders to respond to this in a meaningful way? Let’s say the media actually does this. In this dream scenario, they could really hold their feet to the fire – be tenacious, refuse to accept non-answers, point out conflicts of interest, refute illogic, etc. It seems pretty important:

To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.

None of this should be news to readers of this site. But the paper appears to be exceptionally noteworthy:

We have been overwhelmed with the support for our article and thank the more than 15,000 signatories from all ends of the Earth (see supplemental file S2 for list of signatories). As far as we know, this is the most scientists to ever co-sign and formally support a published journal article.

Worth pondering is what to do when legal means of halting our death march continue to fail. Sure there are small victories here and there – for example, the article notes the decline in the manufacturing of ozone depleting substances. But the overall narrative of impending doom hasn’t changed. Collectively, we’re not listening. Or, put another way, those who are okay with destroying the biosphere, and those who profit off it directly and indirectly, haven’t listened. There doesn’t seem to be many good reasons to think they’ll start now.

Cool new study suggests the poor have shittier brains

The Life You Can Save’s [1] Facebook page recently shared an article that asks the question: does poverty show up in children’s brains? Because who among us haven’t been aware of the plight of the less fortunate and wondered if, in addition to being less fortunate, or also mentally inferior?

From the article:

Children from households below the federal poverty line ($24,250 for a family of four in 2015) had 8 to 10% less grey matter in these critical regions [frontal lobe, temporal lobe and hippocampus]. And even kids whose families were slightly better off – incomes of one-and-a-half times the federal poverty level – had 3 to 4% less grey matter than the developmental norm. In Pollak’s study, many of the poor parents were highly educated, indicating the “maturational lags” their children suffered from were a direct result of the circumstances of poverty.

The policy implications are immense. If the data holds, simply moving a family’s income out of poverty might be enough to get that child much closer to cognitive developmental norms [IT’S SO SIMPLE!]. And while we don’t yet know whether, or how much, these brain disparities persist into adulthood, this research – combined with past work demonstrating that people raised in poverty end up doing worse financially and suffering greater health problems than their more-affluent contemporaries over the course of their lifetimes – suggests they probably have lifelong effects.

These studies indicate it isn’t one specific factor that’s solely responsible for diminishing brain growth and intellectual potential, but rather the larger environment of poverty.

You did it, oh benevolent scientists! I think we now can definitively state that poverty is bad! Pop the fucking champagne! [2]

There is an ocean of research and literature pertaining to the causes and effects of poverty. To my knowledge, I don’t think any studies have been done to discover just how much money and resources have been put into this. What a fucking myopic waste of time, all to satisfy the curiosity of certain sections of academia. In regards to the above referenced research, what do they even tell they’re subjects? “Sorry, you’re brain kinda sucks. Good luck with that – try to get more money before you have kids.”

Maybe all of these researchers think their work will be the catalyst for the large-scale changes needed to actually confront the massive problems related to income inequality. And that’s a noble pursuit, snark aside. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so rude and dismissive of their career choices – after all, we’re all just wasting time until we die 🙂

***

Matthew Desmond studied my home city, Milwaukee, in his critically acclaimed book about the crushing repercussions of eviction. I found it profound and heartbreaking. It shone a light on a relatively unknown aspect of poverty.

Upon further reflection, asking the question if eviction can have astoundingly negative consequences for the evictees should be answered “yes, no shit.” Research like this filters out into the general populace, and the well-to-do can sadly nod at yet another previously unseen side of the mountain of bullshit that the less fortunate are forced to ascend if they want any semblance of comfort and stability in their lives.

During last summer’s unrest in Milwaukee, I recall seeing a video of a young man angrily lamenting those who come into his neighborhood looking to study them, like animals in a zoo. He asks the very relevant question of “what good does that do for us? They come here, leave, and nothing changes” [3]. It’s a salient point.

Which study will be the one to actually incite meaningful action?

***

The elite, and their sycophants (simultaneously worshiping and jealously coveting the status of their societal betters) have always scorned the less well off. History is replete with uncountable anecdotes, from Mesopotamian city-states to the contemporary West. I don’t think it necessary to belabor the point with endless examples

Evidence of superiority is eagerly sought out, though it’s hard to see why it’s even necessary. To pick one, easy, example, white Europeans were obviously superior to their colonial subjects. However, that self-evident knowledge was insufficient and reasons why needed to be sought out. Superior religion and intelligence proved to be the best justifications, enabling them to revel in their paternalistic mastery over their new domains.

Unfortunately, science has also been a useful tool for the dominant classes to use as a quasi-intellectual cudgel (surely this has been adequately covered on FtB). Recently, a Google employee’s anti-diversity screed went viral. I highly recommend not reading it and won’t even attempt to summarize it. As Rae Paoletta at Gizmodo points out, this is merely another example of the usage of science to reify the status of a dominant class (in this case, men):

Of course, using “science” to justify male superiority is much older than anything espoused by evolutionary psychologists. The idea that women are less psychologically stable—or more, bluntly, “hysterical”—has been around at least since Hippocrates wrote about it in the 5th century BCE. As Freud and his contemporaries later posited, women’s biology explained their “inherent” insanity. Or, as this particular Google employee called it, their neuroticism.

Through this lens, it’s not hard to see research about brain-inferiority being used by terrible people.

***

But maybe this is the research that will lead to change on a large-scale. I can see it now: Senator Bleeding Heart, Democrat from the Northeast/Northwest, introduces legislation (already passed by the House) citing it. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan both shed tears in shame for the evil they’ve done. Party lines are dissolved as the legislation is passed in a remarkable show of bipartisan solidarity. The 1% is to be heavily taxed and that money is transferred to the poor. A rider halves the military budget, freeing up even more money. A chastened, somber President Trump recognizes the gravity of the moment and the thick layers of bile that constitute his fetid interior disintegrates. He signs the bill. Truly, America is finally starting on the road to Becoming Great Again.  (Please excuse both my childlike understanding of how a bill becomes a law and simplistic methods to confront mass poverty).

More seriously, this is manna for the Sam Harris’s of the world. Just think: if poor Americans have less gray matter, just imagine how much less Muslim refugees have. Especially if they spend their formative years in camps. Harris can continue to laud himself for the courage he has to stand up to the regressive left using this evidence for his loathsome beliefs. So brave, always speaking truth to the vast power of the cowardly PC elites.

Let’s be honest, we are nowhere near ready to willing as a society to confront the systemic natures of the problem of inequality. This isn’t to say that all research into the causes of poverty is without utility. If it leads to increased donations to worthy organizations then that’s good. But it was truly disheartening to see TLYC, as well as one of their featured charities, GiveDirectly, sharing this. All in all, performing research to investigate brain differences serves to further stigmatize the less fortunate. It does not help.


[1]  TLYCS studies which charities do the best, most effective work. I wrote about it here

[2] I’ll leave scrutinizing the actual research to those more knowledgeable than I about the brain sciences

[3] Unfortunately I haven’t been able to locate this video

Crows!

Here is an awesome short about crows wrecking shit:

Here are some internet things about crows:

Crows Understand Analogies

Stop Picking On Crows: Study Reveals the Birds Aren’t Evil Predators

Do Crows Hold Funerals for Their Dead?

6 Terrifying Ways Crows Are Way Smarter Than You Thinkl

Solitary Crow On Fence Post Portending Doom, Analysts Warn

Here are some books about crows:

Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, By John Marzluff

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, by Bernd Heinrich (mostly about ravens, but there’s some crow talk)

Crows are great and I welcome any cool crow stories. Crow negativity will not be tolerated.

ETA: A few years back I was walking from the house to the garage when  something hit me on the head. It was a chunk of bread. The weird thing was, it felt like it came straight down – the house was on my immediate left (it seemed unlikely someone from that direction threw it on a high enough arc that had an endpoint at my position), and I couldn’t see anyone in my field of view to the right of me. Sure enough, I look up and there’s a crow looking down at me from a wire. Well played, I thought.

Our crumbling infrastructure

As a culture, we are fantastic at living in the moment. In the event we plan for the future at all, it is typically with ourselves and immediate family in mind. I do this too – I try to focus on things I have a tenuous degree of control over. The big questions of impending doom related to climate change and infrastructure failures are delegated to professionals – the government, private companies – and activists. It doesn’t seem to be working very well.

You’ve probably heard of the Oroville Dam clusterfuck. It’s pretty bad, and there’s more to come:

According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), the U.S. had 173 dam failures and 587 incidents between January 1st, 2005 and June 2013. (“Incidents” are defined as “episodes that, without intervention, would likely have resulted in dam failure.”) A majority of those failures were attributed to extreme weather.

Lori Spragens, executive director of the ASDSO, told Gizmodo that it’s possible there are more incidents that have gone unnoticed or unreported. There’s no across the board rule about reporting incidents, she said. “It just depends on the state. Some states only regulate high-hazard dams, some regulate all three levels of hazard,” low, significant, and high, according to the ASDSO.

A 2013 report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States’ overall infrastructure a letter grade of “D+,” meaning poor. The score was even lower for the 84,000 U.S. dams, which received a “D.” (It’s also worth noting that the average age of the failed dams was 62 years old, just 10 years older than the national average.)

Out of all those dams, the most immediately worrisome are the 2,000 that have been categorized as “deficient high-hazard” dams. High-hazard dams are anticipated to cause loss of human life if they fail. Many of these were initially built as low-hazard dams, but as populations grew and development proceeded, people have increasingly found themselves in the danger zone.

You might be thinking, “holy shit, this sounds like it would be really expensive fix.” If so, you’re right!

As politicians campaign on rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, we’ve mostly been engaged in half-measures that require little sacrifice. As one of his final acts as president, Obama authorized the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which allocated $12 billion dollars to a range of projects related to the nation’s water supply. But only a portion of the money is intended to improve the federal government’s high-hazard dams. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates it would take over $57 billion to rehabilitate all of the nation’s dams.

It’s yet to be seen what our new president will do—the infrastructure plan he floated before the election would rely on tax incentives for private companies—but the clock is ticking.

You might be thinking “hmm, maybe it’d be better to use the wall money for something like this.” That’s an idea I only grudgingly think about, largely from the perceptive that the wall idea is asinine and the money could be put to better use. I don’t like dams. However, I guess I’m more agnostic to fixing pre-existing dams, the failure of which would endanger lives. But maybe we should just take them down. In a very recent article in Science FindingsGordon Grant, professor at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, concluded that there is

sound empirical basis for dam removal as a rational, workable strategy to improve fluvial connectivity, reduce environmental hazards associated with aging infrastructure, and promote recolonization by fish and other aquatic organisms in previously blocked reaches.

Sounds good to me. But one drawback of the study is that it acknowledges there is limited data on large dam removal:

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough examples of big dam removals to get a good sense of the full range of possible responses.

Moreover, there is no discussion of impacted human communities downstream. As a rabid, human-hating environmentalist, it’s admittedly not the most important thing to me. But it would be essential for dam removal proponents to address this in ways that people care about (i.e. how humans are affected).

My views aside, we’ll probably neglect the issues at hand until juuuuust before it’s too late. Then, we’ll throw money and technology at the problems in order to, again, kick the can further down the road.

 

Meteor!

A meteor was seen by many in the Upper Midwest. Or, as the American Meteor Society calls it, a “bright green fireball,” which is way cooler.

Several friends on social media noted a bright flash and a loud bang. I slept through it – I neither heard a bang, nor saw a flash 🙁