Community science: A way to help

I recently touched on the concept of ecosystem services, and I wanted to expand on that a little today, and highlight an opportunity for people in Florida (and everywhere else) to help out.

To be very brief, ecosystem services are the ways in which the other forms of life that surround us help humanity simply by going about their lives. Bats eat insects that might otherwise spread disease or damage crops. Earthworms aerate the topsoil and move nutrients around. Whales literally stir the oceans by being huge and moving vertically in the water column. Insects pollinate crops. Plants produce oxygen, and so on.

Another key concept here is that of biodiversity. Biodiversity generally refers to the number of different species in a given area (species richness), as well as the health of those populations. At first glance, it may seem that a healthy ecosystem has each species in its niche, but in general if you remove one, others will adapt to take advantage of the gap.

Humans have been managing our surroundings in one way or another for many thousands of years, and as I’ve said before, we have no way to stop doing so. Our only choice is to try to do it in a way that will promote biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Doing so would be impossible without a clear understanding of the current state of our ecosystems, how we are affecting them, and what results come from our efforts to change those effects.

Specialization has allowed humanity to achieve amazing things by using diverse skills in concert. The downside is that we rarely know a whole lot about specialties other than our own. This ignorance creates a gap that can be exploited by dishonest actors, or even honest folks who just get the wrong idea. That means that whenever there’s an article about a species going extinct, there’s always someone asking the reasonable question, “how do they know?”

The answer isn’t too hard to find, of course, but people often lack the time, energy, or interest to go looking. In brief, we know what’s happening in our ecosystems because thousands of people of all levels of expertise spend their lives catching and counting plants and animals, checking their bodies for industrial byproducts and other pollutants, and so on. It’s a painstaking, sometimes dangerous task, and also very rewarding.

In college I participated in a couple animal surveys, including one that was responsible for saving a species of Bahamian rock iguanas. Every year, conditions allowing, a team of biologists and students spends about a week trying to catch, identify, and measure every single member of the population. Often the breeding season is also monitored, using different methods. It’s hard work, but it’s how we know how the population is doing, what threats it faces, and so on.

I’ve been part of similar efforts monitoring freshwater turtle species, and grassland snake species, and I’ve worked with scientists doing the same for insects, bats, plants, and birds. In my childhood I spent many hours playing in the Middlesex Fells around Boston MA while my father counted native and invasive plants for his graduate degrees.

I also worked with groups who organized every day members of the community to help in those efforts.  Every year, millions of people of all ages help ecologists by reporting sightings of birds, flowers, insects, frog calls, and so on, as opportunity or hobbies dictate. Those reports can be part of an organized study, or they can be made directly to relevant government agencies. In the latter case, there will be someone like me who goes through the reports to determine their likely accuracy. One common example is that a “cobra sighting” in the American Midwest is almost certainly a terrified Hognose snake trying to look scary.

I’m writing this post because Tegan came across an opportunity for folks in Florida to help with such a project, and it’s something I keep forgetting to write about.

Since I wasn’t sure what was up with this dude, I did what I always do whenever I see something weird going on with a wild animal; I called my local Fish & Wildlife! This might sound like a crazy reaction to seeing a splotchy turtle but I actually learned something extremely important that I would love for my followers (especially those in Florida) to know about too. After calling F&W I spoke with the turtle specialist for quite some time, as it turns out there is an unknown pathogen killing softshell turtles in Florida, and biologists are desperate to find the cause. They need our help to do this! The biologist that I spoke with says they’re relying on civilian reports to find cases for further study, so it’s incredibly important to spread the word and make sure people know how to report any abnormal appearance or behavior in turtles that they see.

Fortunately my splotchy turtle (I call him Uncle Walter) doesn’t seem to be sick based on his presentation or behavior! The turtle experts examined his photos and at this point they agree he is probably just piebald, though they asked me to keep an eye on him and make sure his condition doesn’t change. I’m so happy that I am armed with knowledge I can use to monitor him and his friends in the face of this worrisome unknown illness.

To my friends here in Florida- if you see ANY wild turtle that looks sick, weak, distressed, or abnormal please contact Fish and Wildlife immediately using the information provided below! To my non-Fl friends, if you have any contacts that enjoy herping or just outdoor activity in the state please let them know about this as well. Our turtles are very dear to us and reporting possible illness is the best way we can help find what’s killing these animals.

These projects are everywhere. While I was working for the Wisconsin DNR I was able to see some data that’s exempted from things like the Freedom of Information Act, not because of anything related to national security, but because making the exact locations of endangered species easy to find leaves them open to harm from the illegal pet trade, animal parts trade, and people whose quest for riches is blocked by laws protecting those species.

These projects are everywhere.

If you are reading this, the odds are very good that if you do a search for “citizen science” or “community science”(a term I prefer), a local species you like, and your area, you’ll be able to find something. If that doesn’t work, you can contact local nature centres, natural history museums, or universities, or look for hobbyist clubs. If you go through all of that and can’t find anything, let me know and I’m willing to bet I can find something.

Responding to climate change, and to human destruction of the ecosystems we rely on requires a massive amount of information. Science at it’s best is a collective effort, and with the ubiquity of cameras and recording equipment, helping that effort has never been easier. If you can’t see, you may be able to help with frog or bird call surveys. If you can’t do any field work, there are always data that need to be processed, or you could count animals via video, and you can always help to publicise these projects. If you have the time, energy, and interest, go see what your options are!


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

How to disguise repression for power and profit

One of the most infuriating things about healthcare in the United States is that not only is it viciously expensive, the private insurance system is a deliberately confusing labyrinth filled with tricks and traps designed to maximize profit both for the insurance companies and for healthcare providers.

Prices for care vary widely not only from place to place, but also depending on who’s actually paying. The overwhelming majority of transactions in our day to day lives deal with fixed prices. The price one person pays is the same as the one everyone else pays, and things like haggling are not even an option. You pay the asking price, or you don’t buy that product.

That means that when we get a bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars for something related to health care, we tend to assume that’s just the cost, and seeing the size of some of those bills, it’s not hard to understand why people would be willing to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month to avoid a bill of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for accident or illness. A good health insurance plan can make a huge difference in the life of a U.S. resident.

For example, when I spent a semester in Tanzania, I took the anti-malarial drug Malarone. It was the best option available, particularly because the alternatives had common side effects like intense, usually unpleasant dreams, or increased sensitivity to solar radiation. For a northerner visiting the tropics, it’s generally a bad idea to do things that make sunburns more likely.

The problem is that Malarone is more expensive. It’s a daily pill, and at the time I  believe it cost $5USD per pill. Nowadays the same supply would cost a little over $7USD per pill. For a four month trip, that’s around $600, on top of any other expenses. The insurance I had at the time, through my father’s work, covered it entirely.

That’s not the actual cost to make the pills though- not even close. It’s also probably not what the insurance company paid for them.

The relationship between patient and insurer is very adversarial, resulting in the aforementioned labyrinth, but beyond that, the bills patients see are almost never what insurance companies pay. They negotiate better rates and prices, and then try to push the costs they can’t negotiate away onto the patient, with the kinds of results David Pakman discusses in this clip:

I can’t help but feel that the extortionate “asking price” helps push people into paying so much for insurance, to avoid medical bankruptcy.

My own experiences include a plan in 2008 and 2009 that wouldn’t cover any emergency rooms within about 10 miles of where I lived, spending months and countless hours trying to confirm that the coverage I was paying for in 2018 and 2019 was active, and on trying to find a doctor that would even accept it, getting charged $200 out of pocket for a 10 minute consultation with a doctor when it turned out the card I had been paying $600 per month to get wasn’t working, and many other delightful experiences.

I took a fall on my bicycle in 2009 that cracked my helmet in half, and decided to hope no serious damage had been done rather than pay for the emergency room. I was hit by a car while commuting on my bike in 2013 (the driver’s fault), and had to turn down the ambulance ride and avoid getting my injuries checked out for the same reason. In both cases, I got lucky.

The entire world is subjected to relentless propaganda about how the United States is “the greatest country in the world”, but much of that is just incidental exposure to messaging aimed at American citizens, designed apparently to keep us from realizing the degree to which we are mistreated by our country and its ruling class.

I sometimes see people from Europe wondering why Americans don’t take to the streets over things like the healthcare situation, poor wages and inadequate safety nets, and so much more. A lot of it is things like this. Protesters risk arrest. Many companies reserve the right to fire employees who get arrested, or who miss work because they got arrested, or who miss work for a protest or a strike. Losing work isn’t just losing a paycheck, for many it’s also losing access to healthcare.

Protesting for any change in a left-wing direction can result in brutal attacks by police with kinetic and chemical weapons, which can result in massive medical bills. Rioting even more so (though police often try to turn peaceful protests into riots).

The reality of the United States is that it has found ways to repress its citizenry far beyond what you might think is happening based on what the law says. Rather than direct government control, corporations set the conditions under which people can have a stable, healthy life, and the government only has to prevent you from getting around the obstacles created by the corporations.

Health insurance companies levy heavy taxes for access to medicine, the government just ensures that there’s no better alternative than paying, and that same pattern exists throughout the system.

That’s why so much activism now includes efforts to help protesters avoid the steep penalties for exercising their right to protest, and it’s also why I ended up settling on my favoured approach to working for change.

This same dynamic exists to various extents in all capitalist countries. It is not the only form of repression, but despite all the talk about the “free” nature of capitalism, it is still a form of repression, and from what I can tell, it’s only getting worse.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Florida state of emergency highlights a larger problem

Whether it’s banning references to climate change, or sending armed goons to invade the home of a scientist calling out false COVID numbers, the Florida Republican Party hasn’t been shy about suppressing or ignoring science that relates to ongoing crises.

That’s why it was rather alarming to hear that Florida governor Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency over a looming industrial disaster.

Work crews were pumping millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater into an ecologically sensitive Florida bay on Sunday, as they tried to prevent the “imminent” collapse of a storage reservoir at an old phosphate mine.

Officials in Manatee county extended an evacuation zone overnight and warned that up to 340m gallons could engulf the area in “a 20ft wall of water” if they could not repair the breach at the Piney Point reservoir in the Tampa Bay area, north of Bradenton.

In addition to the direct kinetic and water damage of a flood that size, mine waste ponds tend to contain toxic, often radioactive materials, as in this case.

Crews are working both to plug the leaks, and to drain the pond, but it’ll be a little over a week before they’re done. In the meantime, the area is being evacuated.

If you do a quick search for “mine tailing disasters”, you’ll see that this is neither a new problem, nor one that is limited to any one part of the globe. The reality is that dealing with the problem of mine waste has been put off more or less indefinitely, rather than cutting into profits to address the issue. It should come as no surprise to my readers that I think this is not a problem that can be put off much longer.

Obviously climate disasters like storm-fueled floods or drought-fueled dust storms or fires can spread toxic waste, but “storage solutions” like this also put drinking and irrigation water at risk. Unfortunately I think the problem goes deeper than that. As I mentioned this past September, the industrial activity involved in non-fossil energy technology is neither cleaner than any other form of mining and manufacturing, nor is it exempt from the ways in which the profit motive encourages companies to cut corners and ignore problems.

I very much hope that the immediate danger is averted, and neither the homes, nor the jail in the flood zone are harmed. Once the crisis has passed, however, the larger problem remains, and as with so many others, the longer we delay dealing with it, the more it will cost in blood and resources to deal with it.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Forests for food: ecosystem management for a brighter future

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, much of the blame for the disaster that followed rightly went to neglected or inadequate infrastructure, and the structural racism that allowed known problems to linger until they brought devastation on the low-lying minority communities of that city. Most of that death and destruction could have been prevented, had those with the power to do so cared more about human life than about money.

The region’s “natural” infrastructure got a bit less focus. Salt marshes and mangrove swamps once lined far more of the Gulf Coast than they do today. Industrial and commercial activity have both steadily cut away at those ecosystems, carving channels for ships and poisoning the water with oil and gas wells. The result was that the natural breakwaters that used to protect low-lying populations like New Orleans are mostly gone, so when a storm surge rises, there’s no tangle of vegetation to slow its momentum and reduce its power to overwhelm the human structures farther inland.

In our careless destruction of the ecosystems around us, we are also robbing ourselves of the benefits we derive from so-called “ecosystem services“.

Other such services include things like the oxygen generated through photosynthesis, the food we take from wild populations, the pollination provided by bees and other insects, the parasites eaten by insectivores, the water cleaned by wetlands, and so on.

It’s pretty common for people to take these services for granted. They’ve always been there, and it can be easy to feel like they always will be.

These days, however, it’s increasingly obvious that not only are we losing them at an alarming rate, for some, like natural protections against storm surges, they’re effectively almost gone.

If we want humanity to survive, we are faced with either attempting to replace these services with human constructs, or with cultivating and protecting them, restoring at least some of what has been lost, and living in a manner that encourages those ecosystems to thrive.

This is no small task, as we’ve done a lot of damage and the rapid warming of our planet will do still more in the coming years. It may well end up costing us as much as the technological and societal changes -like ending fossil fuel use- that are already at the centre of environmental discourse.

Now that we are effectively a force of nature on the surface of this planet, our survival depends on planning for the deep future. I think this is one reason the concept of a food forest has appealed to me since I first encountered it.

Food forests are basically what they sound like. A planned and cultivated forest ecosystem filled with plants that produce food for human consumption. Nut, fruit, and sugar trees for the upper stories, berries and things like grape vines lower down, and various edible greens, roots, and mushrooms at ground level.

Done right, such an ecosystem requires little labour to maintain, and where conventional farming often depletes the soil, leaving the land less productive for future generations, a food forest can potentially feed people for centuries or more without the need for massive use of fertilizers or pesticides.

I want to be clear – this is a trade-off. I don’t know the exact numbers, but a system like this is going to produce a lower density of food per acre than a monoculture field. Machine-based harvesting wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as efficiently. This is not a form of agriculture designed to produce vast amounts of a single crop like wheat, corn, or soy.

I think the ideal arrangement would be a mix of unmanaged wilderness, conventional farmland, and various kinds of food forest. The concept also isn’t limited to a conventional “forest” – similar planned ecosystems are possible in a wide variety of conditions,  and may not always include things like larger trees. While food is a central part of such an ecosystem, it’s multi-purpose.  It provides habitat for wildlife, a communal place for recreation, a tool for public education, and the cultivation and maintenance of ecosystem services.

This is not a new concept. Not even close.

When I say a well-managed food forest can feed people for centuries, that’s because such forests have already done so. Perhaps the most famous example is an ancient forest in Morocco, but in reality this form of agriculture has been found in all sorts of places. European cultures, as part of their obsession with the imagined superiority of their “race”, dismissed the possibility that Native American cultures, for example, pursued their own forms of agriculture and land management, simply because they didn’t conform to how the colonists thought such activities “should” look.

What this really comes down to is this: our current global society operates largely on the assumption that humans are somehow separate from the rest of life on this planet – that because we are different in how we interact with our surroundings, we do not depend on the ecosystems we inhabit. I’ll delve more into ecosystem services and things like food forests in the future, but with the alarm about declining wild bee populations alone, I think it has become abundantly clear that that perceived separation was always as much of a lie as the white supremacist dismissal of these forms of ecosystem management.

As indicated by some of the sources I have linked, work has long been underway to both raise awareness of these practices and to expand existing food forest projects – both new, and very, very old. In ecology, diversity tends to mean strength and resilience. I think that’s a guideline we would do well to follow if we want humanity to have a future worth living in.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Dublin, at last

Well, where to begin?

Firstly, let me apologize for my long absence. My extended visa in the UK expired at the end of March, and so Tegan and I had arranged to move to Dublin, where her PhD began this year.

Unfortunately, her bout with Covid back in February is still showing up on tests, so she wasn’t allowed to travel. I came on ahead, with the cat and the dog to set up shop. Without going into too much detail, life got a lot more complicated than we had expected, and, I didn’t have much time or energy for anything other than moving.

Now I’m in Dublin at last, with Tegan shortly behind (I hope), and so far it has been lovely. Pretty much as soon as I got off the ferry from Holyhead, a fellow stopped to declaim at length about what a pretty dog Raksha is (which is an inarguable Truth), and to give me both his number, and the offer of help if I needed it.

That has set the tone for my time here the last couple days, with neighbors and contacts helping with boxes, groceries (since I am in quarantine) and other offers of assistance.

I couldn’t help thinking that this is very like the kind of community organizing/building work that inspired my direct action post, and after so long in the fragmented social landscape that seems so common in cities, there’s a lot for me to learn simply by trying to be a good member of this community to which I’ve moved.

It’s remarkable, for example, how a group of people going about their lives will cover enough ground in a city that if someone needs something, the odds are good that a neighbour will be able to pick it up, without needing a company like Amazon.

I suppose it comes with a loss in privacy – I’m not used to people outside my household knowing my grocery list and whatnot – but I find that it doesn’t bother me too much.

Maybe coming to terms with mass surveillance and other invasions of privacy has prepared us all to re-embrace the comparatively mild inconveniences that might come with a supportive community.

Multiple governments and corporations know, or will know as soon as they wish to, my health problems, my money problems, what I say near microphones, and what I do online.

They will never offer to pick up supplies for me, or to walk my dog.

When I get a terminal disease, they may well know it before I do, but they will not tell me or help me without a high price.

I’ve known them for two days, but I know for a fact that my new neighbours will bring me soup if I’m ill, whether or not I ask for it. I also know that being a renter impedes my ability to give as much to this community as I otherwise could.  Repairs, improvements, and maintenance all have to go through the company that owns my home, and while the people there are perfectly nice, and I’m sure are good people, their decisions in that regard are informed more by seeking profit than by the needs of their tenants.

I cannot be certain, but I suspect that is why my new refrigerator doesn’t work, and won’t until some time after my quarantine is over, despite this flat being vacant for weeks before I got here.

What would life be like if, instead of paying €1600 per month to someone else, somewhere else, I could spend that directly on what’s needed? Even if that was just a few hundred per month, it would allow me to save, and to spend more money on things like communal agriculture projects, or an algal farming cooperative, or something like that.

Instead, we have a long chain of people, each of whom is forced by law and circumstance to pay the next link, all funneling back to a small handful whose only skill is hoarding wealth.

In training themselves to become or remain wealthy, they neglected any of the creativity or human experience that would allow them to spend that wealth in a way that provides a net benefit for their own species, or the species on which we rely.

All.of this is to say that I’m “back”, with no intention of such lapses in the foreseeable future.  My formatting will be different for a bit because I’m doing this on a phone till I can get my computer running, but it good to be able to write for y’all again.

Tomorrow’s post will be on food forests, and as always I’m eager for feedback that will help me improve this blog as a resource for those who read it.

Edit: food forest post is going up Sunday. I lost track of time unpacking. It’s easy to forget that things other than writing also take time.