Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Humanity

How conspiracy theories evolved from our drive for survival

Jan-Willem van Prooijen writes: The great fire of Notre Dame on 15 April 2019 broke the hearts of culture lovers around the world. Parisians wept in public while the flames reduced large parts of this monumental cathedral to smouldering ashes. The French president Emmanuel Macron Tweeted a sentiment that not only French people felt: ‘Je suis triste ce soir de voir brûler cette part de nous’ (‘I feel sad tonight

How science has shifted our sense of identity

Nathaniel Comfort writes: In the iconic frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), primate skeletons march across the page and, presumably, into the future: “Gibbon, Orang, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Man.” Fresh evidence from anatomy and palaeontology had made humans’ place on the scala naturae scientifically irrefutable. We were unequivocally with the animals — albeit at the head of the line. Nicolaus Copernicus had displaced us

What an embodied history of trees can teach us about life

Dalia Nassar and Margaret M Barbour write: Place yourself on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, near the Franz Josef Glacier. Officially, this forest is a temperate podocarp-hardwood rainforest, but these dry words belie the rich diversity of plant life around, encompassing every imaginable shade of green, brown and grey. They also do an injustice to the experience of standing dwarfed by the soaring trunks of

The end of life on Earth?

Apocalyptic statements always sound crazy and talking about the end of life on Earth at this juncture in its history will, for many people, seem like an overly pessimistic assessment of the perils we face. Temperatures rise, extreme weather events become more frequent, species dwindle or disappear, forests burn, glaciers melt — no doubt the situation is dire, but surely not so bad that we are witnessing the destruction of

How cultural anthropologists redefined humanity

Louis Menand writes: Not that long ago, Margaret Mead was one of the most widely known intellectuals in America. Her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” published in 1928, when she was twenty-six, was a best-seller, and for the next fifty years she was a progressive voice in national debates about everything from sex and gender to nuclear policy, the environment, and the legalization of marijuana. (She was in

The Amazon is burning because the world eats so much meat

CNN reports: While the wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest may constitute an “international crisis,” they are hardly an accident. The vast majority of the fires have been set by loggers and ranchers to clear land for cattle. The practice is on the rise, encouraged by Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s populist pro-business president, who is backed by the country’s so-called “beef caucus.” While this may be business as usual for Brazil’s

Fires in the Amazon, the planet at risk

Tierra Curry writes: In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest is now burning at a record rate. The greedy, short-sighted policies of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro are jeopardizing indigenous peoples and countless plants and animals. Indeed, in the midst of a climate emergency, Bolsonaro’s policies to slash environmental protections and develop the Amazon for mining, ranching and farming jeopardize the future of life on Earth as we know it. North America

Living in space

  By Paul Woodward To see things clearly, we often need to break the patterns of habit. The Earth, physically and metaphorically — the ground of human experience — is the stationary foundation that forms the background of movement: our movement across its surface; the terra firma against which the oceans wash and above which birds fly; the horizon that the Sun rises above and then falls beneath. Intellectually, as

Nations gather to tackle the world’s sixth mass extinction

The Guardian reports: From giraffes to sharks, the world’s endangered species could gain better protection at an international wildlife conference. The triennial summit of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), that began on Saturday, will tackle disputes over the conservation of great beasts such as elephants and rhinos, as well as cracking down on the exploitation of unheralded but vital species such as sea cucumbers, which clean ocean

It’s raining plastic: Microscopic fibers fall from the sky in the Rocky Mountains

The Guardian reports: Plastic was the furthest thing from Gregory Wetherbee’s mind when he began analyzing rainwater samples collected from the Rocky Mountains. “I guess I expected to see mostly soil and mineral particles,” said the US Geological Survey researcher. Instead, he found multicolored microscopic plastic fibers. The discovery, published in a recent study (pdf) titled “It is raining plastic”, raises new questions about the amount of plastic waste permeating

Global population distribution from 10,000 BCE to the present

  Population estimates are from the History Database of the Global Environment (HYDE)

A quarter of humanity faces looming water crises

The New York Times reports: Countries that are home to one-fourth of Earth’s population face an increasingly urgent risk: The prospect of running out of water. From India to Iran to Botswana, 17 countries around the world are currently under extremely high water stress, meaning they are using almost all the water they have, according to new World Resources Institute data published Tuesday. Many are arid countries to begin with;

We must change food production to save the world, says leaked report

The Guardian reports: Attempts to solve the climate crisis by cutting carbon emissions from only cars, factories and power plants are doomed to failure, scientists will warn this week. A leaked draft of a report on climate change and land use, which is now being debated in Geneva by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states that it will be impossible to keep global temperatures at safe levels unless

‘Nature is declining at rates unprecedented in human history,’ says director of biodiversity conservation group

The Guardian reports: From the tops of trees to the depths of the oceans, humanity’s destruction of wildlife is continuing to drive many species towards extinction, with the latest “red list” showing a third of all species assessed are threatened. The razing of habitat and hunting for bushmeat has now driven seven primates into decline, while overfishing has pushed two families of extraordinary rays to the brink. Pollution, dams and

The terrifying sound of a human voice

Ed Yong writes: In the summer of 2017, the mountain lions, bobcats, and other residents of the Santa Cruz Mountains were treated to the dulcet tones of the ecologist Justin Suraci and his friends, reading poetry. Some of the animals became jittery. Others stopped eating. A few fled in fear. Suraci, who’s based at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wasn’t there to see their reactions. He and his

Research on honeybees hit by Trump budget cuts

CNN reports: The US Department of Agriculture has suspended data collection for its annual Honey Bee Colonies report, citing cost cuts — a move that robs researchers and the honeybee industry of a critical tool for understanding honeybee population declines, and comes as the USDA is curtailing other research programs. It’s also another step toward undoing President Barack Obama’s government-wide focus on protecting pollinators, including bees and butterflies, whose populations