Towards An Enduring Society

The scope of today’s environmental problems is fraught with catchwords such as greenhouse effect, depletion of the life-protecting (stratospheric) ozone layer, marine pollution, soil degradation and the loss of species and biotope diversity. Our steadily narrowing spectrum of consumed products from agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and the concentration on a few economically valuable species, has resulted in a specialization of land and marine food harvesting systems. Combined with the conversion of habitats, these are prime causes of species loss within any particular ecosystem. Obviously, all our activities, especially the harvesting of natural resources, have tremendous impact on the ecosystem. Equally obvious is the fact that non-sustainable harvesting, and causing the extinction of species, is ethically unacceptable and unjustifiable. Because we all need nature; for food, health and scientific innovation, the prevention of floods, droughts and epidemics, the mitigation of natural disasters, and of course we need wild places, animals and plants for recreation, renewal, and inspiration. Consequently, we need to consider the carrying capacity and flexibility of the economic and social systems, but also the cultural diversity, which helps people adapt to changing conditions. perhaps the biggest challenge is that our knowledge about the world tends to be organized in small segments. It is our fascination for parts and pieces that blinds us to the whole. What is needed instead is a holistic view that helps us understand patterns of complexity and interaction that point towards balance over time.

The internationally acknowledged basis for agreements on environmental protection, resource management, and conservation, relies on the principles of sustainable development and the maintenance of bio-diversity.

The concept of sustainable development, first introduced in the Brundland Commission’s report Our Common Future, is based on the realization that the conditions for economic activities will continue to deteriorate in the future, if the natural resources underlying these activities are destroyed at the present rate. By exploiting non-renewable raw materials, we consume resources as if making withdrawals from a limited saving account, without making deposits. At the same time, our species is using renewable resources above and beyond their regeneration capacity. The earth’s limited absorption capacity is strained by emissions and waste volumes, resulting in ecological costs that can no longer be ignored. In other words, to prevent future generations from suffering from shortages of natural resources, or a deterioration of environmental quality, this capital stock should at least be kept at a constant level. But rather than focussing on specific issues, such as resource availability and absorption capacity, I like to think of sustainable development as a means that helps preserve the vital functions of the environment, including the potential for change, evolution and self-regulation.

Bio-diversity is meant to be all-inclusive; it is the genetic-based variation of living organisms at all levels. It includes the world’s millions of species and the ecological systems they live in, ranging from Polar Regions with relatively few species, to the tropics with their great abundance of different life forms. Preserving bio-diversity provides us with at least three domains of benefit: the maintenance of our ecosystems in healthy condition, a potential source of new resources such as pharmaceuticals, crops, fibers etc., all holding economic value, and biophilia, a term used by E.O. Wilson to describe the natural affiliation humans have for the nature. It is our failure to recognize our connection with the global ecosystem that lies at the center of the biodiversity crisis facing our planet. We have to recognize that biological diversity is part of our heritage and is incomparably older and more complex than anything else.

Of the 5-30 million species that exist today, humans consume nearly half of the land-based ecosystem production, and 25% of all plant energy from the land and sea combined. Today there are less than 1 million elephants, but 100 million cattle on earth. These numbers do not reflect intrinsic worthiness, but rather developed usefulness. And yet, we must confront the demographic realities honestly, if we hope to create a sustainable lifestyle and preserve bio-diversity. Although nobody knows the exact rate of extinction, estimates are that about 26,000 species are lost each year, which means that three species are lost forever every hour. It is also commonly accepted that there is a relationship between habitat loss and species numbers. Reducing a habitat’s original size by 10% is thought to eventually lead to the numbers of species inhabiting that area dropping by half. Every species that disappears is a loss of evolutionary potential and potential resource. Human-caused extinction is believed to be between a thousand and ten thousand times greater than what it was before Man populated our planet. This is far in excess of the rate at which new species are being created. So again, we are quickly depleting the capital that took millions of years to create.

To better manage natural resources the following guidelines may be helpful:

  • The depletion rates of renewable resources should not exceed their renewal rates;
  • The consumption of non-renewable resources should be limited to levels at which they can either be replaced by physically, or functionally, equivalent renewable resources, or at which consumption can be offset by increasing the productivity of renewable or non-renewable resources;
  • Disposal of any substances should take into account the maximum absorption capacity of the specific environment with all it’s functions, including ‘hidden’ and more sensitive regulating ones;
  • There should be a balanced ratio between the time frame of man-made environmental footprints, and the time scale of the corresponding natural processes (reaction capacity of the environment).

In principle, a detailed evaluation of how to best address these challenges can be achieved in two ways: the first is inductive and based on the analysis and the assessment of selected substances and potential fields of application. The second is deductive, aimed at substantiating the model of sustainable development within a general context. In addition, we can distinguish between ecological, economic and social objectives, as well as between preservation and restructuring objectives.

Mankind faces the enormous challenge of developing a sustainable global society and economy. This constitutes one of the biggest opportunities in the history of commerce, with billions of dollars in revenues. Business and science, it seems, are the only organizations with the resources, technology, global reach and ultimately, the motivation to achieve this goal. However, the business and scientific communities have never developed appropriate mechanisms for interaction between them; nor have the critical relative balances of scientific knowledge, profit and societal benefits been satisfactorily established. We must strive to create an enduring and resilient society with a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative; where economics, natural and human systems are integrated and profitable, and expandable companies created that do not destroy, directly or indirectly, the world around them. In other words, the key to restoring and sustaining the earth’s environmental health lies in integrating and balancing the needs of both environmental and human systems through practical choices in pollution prevention, conservation, economic development and a societal shift towards preferences for sustainable products and services.

In the end, all this will contribute to a better understanding of the impact we have on our planet. You can’t have seven billion people growing and running around on a planet without having some major impacts. Right now we are making choices we don’t even understand; better to make an informed choice don’t you think? The technologies needed to stop, or at least slow, the possible dismal inheritance of our children and their children are available. It is the individual and society who will have to accept the necessary and profound changes in life styles, priorities and values as well as the enormous costs. The choices are ours. As Shakespeare succinctly said in one of his plays, ‘Delays have dangerous ends’.


Why it Is Important to Study Wild Dolphins

Most people love whales and dolphins. They think of them as intelligent creatures. They have heard stories of dolphins coming to the aid of stranded sailors, guiding swimmers back to shore and engaging in cooperative hunting with local fishermen. They feel whales and dolphins are important. And they are right! Maybe more than you might think!
Whales and dolphins embody most of what we need to understand about oceans. They are predators at the top of the food chain and can tell us a lot about what is important in the ocean; where are sites of high productivity, what is the most energy efficient way to travel, and what are the best senses to use in the water.
Because of their complex behavior and social structure, whales and dolphins are especially interesting. But they also offer us a window into the physiological and anatomical adaptations to aquatic life; information we can apply to echolocation and boat sonar. More than valuable intellectual exercises, these studies help us understand phenomena such as population decline, recovery, and extinction, and teach us to care about the world. Generally, understanding begets caring.
Further, whales and dolphins are a vibrant part of the global ecosystem and their populations have been severely affected by, and continue to be extremely vulnerable to human impact, including interactions with fisheries and whaling. Above all, marine pollution and habitat degradation looms as the most menacing threats of all. If we have any philosophical leanings towards preserving nature, either for future generations or for its own value, than learning enough to prevent this damage is crucial.
Lastly, whales and dolphins, are the archetypal ‘charismatic mega-vertebrates’. Throughout centuries, whales and dolphins have played major roles in myths and legends. Every culture that has come into contact with an ocean, have created myths and legends about how whales and/or dolphins came into being, and what their existence means to the world and to us.

In our times, whales and dolphins have come so symbolize, more than any other species, the concern for the environment and have become a special symbol of sharing the earth. People react to them with empathy and express concern for their welfare. They epitomize and illustrate many of the problems humans inflict on the sea. They engender, in people who might not otherwise care, a wish to improve the ‘health’ of the marine environment. The huge interest in these animals can therefore be used to encourage interest in the sea more generally, with whales and dolphins becoming flagships or ambassadors of the oceans.

All that makes it important to study these wonderful creatures. If you understand dolphin echolocation and how it works, then you have the tools to apply that knowledge. If you are a conservationist and are concerned about dolphin entanglement in nets, knowledge allows you to reduce that risk. The application of the knowledge depends on what you value: for an academic, to further knowledge and understanding; for an applied researcher, to be able to provide information to managers on the implications of a range of management options, for a conservation biologist: to find ways of ensuring the health of populations and habitats.

For more than thirty years, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been studied along the west coast of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern sea border, from the Carolinas to the southern tip of Florida. I have been involved with Coastal Dolphin Conservation through the Palm Beach Dolphin project of the Taras Oceanographic Foundation, headquartered in Jupiter, Florida. This project provides critical information on coastal dolphin communities, their lives and societies and shed light on how the health of these top predators, and the conditions of the natural resources they depend on, may directly or indirectly impact our own health and well-being.

In light of the enormous impact whales and dolphins have on humans and their lives, it is not difficult to understand why studying them serves the support of all of us. Search the Internet for the word dolphin sometime and see how many ‘hits’ you get. People believe that whales and dolphins have value and people put their money in things they hold interesting.
Why do dolphins hear sounds up to 150kHz while we hear only to 15? What is there to listen to anyway? Why do only male humpback whales sing and why don’t females? What directs Humpback whales in Hawaii to swim directly north in the summer? How do they know which way is North? Do dolphins ‘see’ an image in their brain from echolocation signals that is similar to what we see with our eyes? Does a dolphin think, and if he does, what does he think about? Do whales dream? Why are blue whales the biggest animals that have ever lived on earth? Why do dolphins have pointy rostrums? But most importantly why does anyone care about the answers to these questions? The main point is that people do care, and this is why we should all take a stand, and invest our time and money into understanding and protecting these marvelous marine mammals. No doubt, life is better with dolphins around.