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In-Depth Studies

Posted by rdsayler | November 27, 2022
Here in the School of the Environment we always encourage people to undertake more in-depth and advanced studies whenever time and personal interest allows.

We bring the following items to your attention as being highly worthy as deeper and thoughtful introductions to more advanced environmental and ecological studies.

These works are longer and will not be adequately covered or digested in just a few seconds of scanning and a quick read. They take time, patience, and focused concentration to complete and more fully appreciate.

However, the science writers highlighted here bring a depth and level of analysis, broad perspectives, and

understanding that helps put critical issues of climate change, extinction and loss of biodiversity, and human impacts on the environment in greater perspective.

As such they provide a foundation for entering more advanced technical studies.

Note: Some of the following stories may require registration with an email depending on your reading history and how many free articles they allow readers.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed by authors are their own and do not reflect policy or positions of Washington State University or the School of the Environment.

air pollution by brick factories

[Photo: Air pollution by brick factories. Source: Wikipedia. Author: Janak Bhatta. License: CC BY-SA 4.0 International.]


Bad News: You’ve Been Contaminated, and Yes, We Mean You

Most people realize that modern industrial society produces many thousands upon thousands of chemicals to manufacture products used in our daily lives, including things like plastic containers, plastic-wrapped food, clothing, carpeting, furniture, waterproofing, paints, solvents, cleaners, and a great many other products derived from petroleum fuels and chemical engineering, such as pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, fire retardants, anti-stick coatings, and beauty and health products, etc. The list is nearly endless.

It’s also generally true that most of us don’t worry obsessively about these chemicals every single day as we go about our lives. Part of it may be simple human nature. If we can’t see it, taste it, touch it, or smell it, we often don’t believe it or at least think much about it.

Many people also simply may default to having faith in government regulations to protect our health and provide clean drinking water and safe foods to eat.

By contrast, other people may be concerned enough about chemical contamination and try to avoid known or potential health risks by doing what they can to avoid exposure to harmful chemicals, perhaps by buying BPA-free water bottles, purchasing organic foods, or otherwise doing what an individual may to reduce exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in our environment.

The problem is that no matter how obsessive an individual may be about exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, it is virtually impossible to avoid them. For example, the Earth is now contaminated with micro-plastics from the peaks of the tallest mountains to the depths of the oceans and many, if not most, organisms contain micro-plastics and other human-made chemicals in their tissues.

The air we breath, the foods and water we ingest, the items we wear, touch, and use are all around us daily. We are surrounded and often infused by manufactured chemicals, perhaps most of which have not been explicitly evaluated for potential effects on human or other biological life.

To follow up on stories recently highlighted in SoE Science News (see: Wear and Tear on the Environment and How Plastics Are Poisoning Us), we direct you to the following article:

The Guardian: In our blood: how the US allowed toxic chemicals to seep into our lives

Experts say that the majority of the 86,000 consumer chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency have never received vigorous toxicity testing”

“Calculations showed that if the most highly exposed women could reduce their PFOA levels closer to the mean, as many as 40,000 low-weight births could be avoided each year”

For Additional Information on PFAS or PFOA (aka “Forever Chemicals” see: EPA – PFAS Explained and FDA – Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) 

Also see: The Conversation – The importance of shining a light on hidden toxic histories


Plastic on beach in Egypt

Dead albatross with ingested plastic
[Photo: Top. Plastic debris on beach in Egypt. Bottom: Stomach contents of a dead albatross chick containing plastic marine debris fed to the chick by its parents. Source: Wikipedia. Credit: Chris Jordan, U.S.F.W.S. License: CC BY 2.0 Public Domain.]
What Do Elephants, Billiard Balls, and Your Stomach Have in Common?

First, let’s not keep you in suspense. The answer should be obvious. Plastic. The entire world, the environments around us, and virtually all life on Earth is surrounded and embedded with plastic. And the consequences are not good, either for you or the world as a whole.

Knowing this situation, then the second issue becomes what do we do about it? That answer also should be obvious to you. But first let’s deal with the pervasive nature of plastic in the environment.

Elizabeth Kolbert, one of our favorite and most accomplished science writers, has once again delivered a thoughtful and interesting piece in The New Yorker: How Plastics Are Poisoning Us.

While the title for this version of Elizabeth’s article is entirely straight forward and descriptive, we couldn’t help think about something more dramatic – The 800 Billion Pound Elephant in the Room: Poisonous Plastics.

Annual production of plastic exceeds eight hundred billion pounds, much of it ends up as microplastics, spreading across the ocean.”

Even if you think you already know about how bad plastic pollution is to the environment, we encourage you to listen or read this article. It will provide you with a broad perspective and solid foundation for understanding plastic pollution and deciding how to address the second issue: what to do about it.

Listen to Podcast or Read: 

See: from The New Yorker – How Plastics Are Poisoning Us – by Elizabeth Kolbert 

African Leopard
[Photo: African leopard in tree. Source: Wikipedia. Author: Sumeet Moghe. License: CC BY-SA 4.0 International.]

Living With Leopards in India 

Humans have long had a difficult relationship with carnivores and the large predators of the world, which we often view as competitors when there are conflicts with agriculture or human safety. Negative views of large predators have long been common in European countries, the U.K., and especially here in the United States and North America.

In the not too distant future, India is expected to have the largest human population in the world. One would not expect large carnivores to be able to coexist with people under such circumstances. And yet, the examples and the ecology and the social science behind populations of leopards in India is revealing new perspectives in conservation science.

See: from Scientific American – Leopards Are Living among People. And That Could Save the Species – by Vidya Athreya 

Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar
[Caterpillar of the Tomato hornworm. Larva of the Five-spotted hawkmoth. Photo by R. Sayler.]

Caterpillar Catastrophe

Elizabeth Kolbert, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for “The Sixth Extinction” is one of our most favorite science writers. Her works are absolutely sure to provide accurate and thoughtful insight into many ecological and environmental issues and are always a pleasure to read.

In keeping with our focus on Bug Splat Ecology and the “Insect Apocalypse” in our Winter 2022 issue of SoE Science News, we were delighted to see Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent piece on entomological investigations into the relatively unknown world of caterpillars and the scientists exploring that largely hidden realm.

It is always fascinating and humbling to see the dedication and effort of scientists who devote their lives to the study of some of the lesser known, but critically important aspects of the natural world. Kolbert’s article and many others (e.g., see National Geographic – Moth-Eating Grizzly Bears) highlight the relationships of insects and other invertebrates to the life-supporting ecological food webs necessary for mammals, birds, amphibians, etc.

Are We Witnessing a Real-Time Ecological Collapse?

The evidence for declining insect populations in at least parts of the world is accumulating rapidly. It is sobering to think that we are witnessing a rather rapid degradation of food webs and a necessary and companion decline in plant and animal populations and species.

You may not have thought much about caterpillars, but if you are interested in how the natural world works, and the lives of dedicated biologists and ecologists, then we can highly recommend this recent work.

See: from The New Yorker – The Little-Known World of Caterpillars – by Elizabeth Kolbert 

The Stochastic Parrot

Blue and Yellow Macaw
[Blue and yellow macaw. Source: Wikipedia. Author: Benjamint444. License: GFDL 1.2]

See: from New York Magazine – Elizabeth Weil – You Are Not a Parrot
A chatbot, such as ChatGPT is not human. But what happens to humanity when machines mindlessly generate text and we begin to think of these machines as human?

Sun and clouds of smoke
[Photo of wildfire smoke in front of the sun in Washington. Photo by R. Sayler.]

See: from The New Yorker – Bill McKibben – Dimming the Sun to Cool the Planet Is a Desperate Idea, Yet We’re Inching Toward ItThe scientists who study solar geoengineering don’t want anyone to try it. But climate inaction is making it more likely.

Collapse of Alaskan Fisheries 

Alaskan red king crab
[NMFS Alaskan fisheries observer holding a red king crab which can reach a leg span of 1.8 m (5.9 Ft). Photo: NOAA in public domain.]

See: from Politico – by Adam Federman  – Alaska’s Fisheries Are Collapsing. This Congresswoman Is Taking on the Industry She Says Is to Blame

Fisheries resources important to the Alaskan economy, such as halibut, crab, and salmon populations, have been crashing. Who and what are to blame? Deep sea trawls that drag nets and 
devastate the sea bottom and kill and waste unimaginable amounts of “bycatch” are blamed by some, but climate change and warming waters are affecting marine ecosystems as well.

See: from The New Yorker – Elizabeth Kolbert – Climate Change From A To Z 

The stories we tell ourselves about the future.

Noam Chomsky: The False Promise of ChatGPT

Screenshot of ELIZA chatbot
[The 1966 ELIZA chatbot. Source: Wikipedia. Photo in Public Domain.]

The human mind is not, like ChatGPT and its ilk, a lumbering statistical engine for pattern matching, gorging on hundreds of terabytes of data and extrapolating the most likely conversational response or most probable answer to a scientific question.” – by Noam Chomsky, New York TimesSee: from the New York Times: Noam Chomsky: The False Promise of ChatGPT by Noam Chomsky, Ian Roberts and Jeffrey Watumull

Note: This opinion piece and guest essay in the New York Times will ordinarily require a subscription to access. We suggest you contact a WSU librarian for assistance in accessing this article. Otherwise, doing a search on Noam Chomsky and “chatbot” will produce a number of derived articles that discuss some of the key issues. However, we recommend the original op-ed if you can access it.



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