A lot of press has recently been given to the Zoological Society of London’s new initiative, EDGE of Existence, with the EDGE acronym standing for Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered. The group plans to raise awareness for species that are, as the title suggests, extremely unique and extremely rare, and therefore worthy of preservation. Researchers from the ZSL plan to implement research and conservation actions for these species by working alongside local scientists in each species’ range.
I think that’s a great plan, certainly much more assertive and practical than the usual fundraising group whose money sits in a safe in some small office somewhere, as the website gets updated with more photos of cute baby pandas. No conservation effort can really succeed without cooperation at the local level, which a lot of these kinds of groups seem to forget. I applaud the ZSL and the EDGE initiative for taking the time to realize this, hopefully they’ll be able to follow through with their proposals.
However, though the methodology seems correct, I have major issues with the focus of the group. On their page, they’ve listed their Top 100 Focus Species, along with some general info, and how intensive current conservation efforts are. The important thing to note is that all of these species are mammals. But why? Mammals are not any more evolutionarily distinct, endangered, or ecologically important as any other group of organisms, possibly even less so than others. The obvious answer is that mammals are cute and charismatic, and therefore will draw in a lot of money and attention.
In that sense, it’s practical, but I also think it’s sending the wrong message. What’s the purpose of saving endangered species? There’s a lot of aesthetic and moral reasons, but a lot of it also has to do with the potential ecological benefit of the species. Will an ecosystem be able to survive if this species is lost? If not, then it’s obviously in our interests to save it from extinction. Here, EDGE has decided to focus on unique and rare mammals, and as I alluded to earlier, I don’t think that’s a particularly important group to focus on.
For example, let’s look at Species #10, the Sumatran Rabbit. The thing hadn’t been seen since the 1930’s, and was presumed extinct until one was accidentally photographed in 1998. We still know almost nothing about the rabbit, only that it’s nocturnal and extremely shy, hence why it’s been so difficult to find.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’d be incredibly cool to save the Sumatran Rabbit. It looks pretty freaking awesome, and its behavior is probably quite fascinating. But I have to just say straight out that ecologically speaking, I really don’t think it’s an important species. It must be a rare species because it has extremely specialized habitat or dietary requirements which have been significantly altered in the past hundred years. If we lose the rabbit to extinction, what does the environment lose? A few plants may not get their seeds spread? A few predators may lose a handful of prey items? I feel like those are probably broad niches that will easily get taken up by a similar herbivore; I doubt that the Sumatran Rabbit was the sole prey item of some Indonesian hawk, for example. When a species is this rare and specialized, I really can’t see the whole thing unraveling upon its loss.
Of course, this is all conjecture. Nobody can really quantitatively state how Important a species is, and what the costs of extinction are. But saying that the Sumatran Rabbit is more worthy of preservation than something totally uncharismatic such as, say, mycorrizhae fungi would be a difficult argument to make. But hey, it’s a complicated subject, nobody really knows for sure what the importance of each species is. I’ll make some concessions then: like I said earlier, beginning with a focus on mammals is practical since it provides cute mascots to front the organization and draw in the public’s interest. Hopefully they’ll move on to other organismal groups from there. In addition, I suppose that some conservation is better than none, so I’d certainly support EDGE over no conservation support at all. Plus, they seem to have a sound plan. That being said, I would still argue that if funds are to be allocated for conservation, there are better causes to be found. The ecological usefulness of these unique and rare mammals is fairly questionable, whereas the usefulness of preserving entire habitats through an organization such as The Nature Conservancy seems much more useful to me personally. That’s just my opinion. So, props to EDGE for raising awareness on the issue and coming up with a sound gameplan, but I’d prefer to see a more ecologically sound list of target species before I throw all my support behind it.
By the way, up at the top of the post, that’s a Red Panda. I don’t usually think of things as ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’, but omgosh, I love Red Pandas. They’re so cute!!!!!!!! Okay, you can kill me now.
Some other things that have caught my attention recently:
Gave a listen to the new Bloc Party album, A Weekend in the City. I hated it. Hated it. One of the worst albums I have ever heard, and that is not a joke. I was feeling generous and give it one star on my RYM page, just because I usually reserve the half-star rating for albums that are so terrible that they actually made me angry (i.e. Fiery Furnaces), and A Weekend in the City was not that offensive. It was just really, really inoffensive, and in the worst way possible.
Bloc Party were never my favorite band, but I didn’t dislike them either. Their debut EP along with the Silent Alarm LP were filled with some really fun moments. Their brand of dance-rock was rooted in some angsty gut emotion, rich territory left un-mined by the totally mindless party fun of !!! or The Rapture. A Weekend in the City is a major stylistic change for the group, but they go in the totally wrong direction. Now, the dance-rock is left in the dust and the emotional drama becomes the band’s primary calling card, and though the band bleeds sincerity, they just don’t have the musical or poetic lyricism to pull it off effectively. Leadoff single ‘I Still Remember’ sounds like the most derivative and uninspired aspects of The Killers, Coldplay, or U2, and is now completely indistinguishable from hundreds of other Brit-rock bands. It’s time to dig this band’s grave, they’ve had their time in the critical spotlight, but that’s pretty much over now. Goodbye Bloc Party, the music scene is a vicious one and has a short-term memory, you just didn’t have what it takes to gain any staying power. I hope you enjoyed your time here while you could.
I saw a really pitiful number of new movies this year, so I tried to make amends by seeing two excellent movies last week, Children of Men, and Old Joy.
Children of Men is the new effort from director Alfonso Cuaron, previously known for his work on Y Tu Mama Tambien and, uh, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hah. Before we move on, I just wanted to state that Azkaban is far and away the best film in the series (though I haven’t taken the time to watch Goblet of Fire yet), and I don’t regret watching it four times in two days during that Nationals debate trip to Salt Lake City. Hah, okay, maybe I do regret it, but not as much as I regret skipping out on a Segway rental at that mall. Ed, wherever you are these days, curse you for talking us out of it. Though we were all bored out of our freaking skulls (I mean, it was Salt Lake City after all), that wasn’t a bad debate trip either, in hindsight.
Anyways, Children of Men takes place twenty years in the future, when the entire human race has suddenly become infertile for unknown reasons. The film isn’t too concerned with the question of ‘why’; a lot more of the focus lies on the ‘what if’ ramifications of such an event, and it’s pretty terrifying stuff. The world has fallen into chaos and anarchy, and the few remaining strongholds of civilization take increasingly desperate measures to control the population. I won’t say too much about the film, other than to state that it was consistently engrossing and brilliant, pretty much all the way through. Everything about the film worked: the writing, acting, production, pacing, and direction were all basically flawless, so all I can really say is that it was just an immaculately produced and substantive film, and I really couldn’t have asked for more. The only real chink in its armor was the ending, which everyone seems to be swarming around as its only weakness. I’m glad that it was left open-ended, but I’m very unhappy with the way Clive Owen’s character was dealt with, it seemed like such a cheap excuse for closure in that sense. But that’s a minor argument, for the most part the strengths of the film more than made up for any weaknesses, and Children of Men was the best film I saw in 2006.
While I was in Boston, I got a quick text message from Mr. Behrend asking if I was interested in seeing this film Old Joy at the Colony Theatre that night. I figured that I would probably be in no emotional shape to see a film at that time, and responded thusly. It was only later when I thought, wait, Old Joy? Why I have never heard of this movie before? Probably because Berardinelli hasn’t reviewed it, I realized, and since I agree with him on almost everything, and he hasn’t reviewed this, it can’t be good!
Then I did some quick research and realized that, wait, this might be the best movie ever. It got a lot of critical praise at Sundance, but more importantly, it stars Will Oldham, of all people? Yo La Tengo did the soundtrack? It has an 84 on Metacritic? The ingredients were in place for something special, so Mr. Behrend and I agreed to meet in a few days time to soak in the experience.
As I expected from the quick research on it, Old Joy is a very minimal and delibrately-paced film. Much of it is just composed of long shots of simple images: a sparrow perched on a branch, the lights of the city, trees zipping by the car window, clouds. All of this is used the frame the minimal story of two old friends going on a hike, and the ways the two have changed or stayed the same.
My main problem with Old Joy is that it’s subtle, but too obviously so. That probably doesn’t make any sense, so I’ll try and explain. Before and after their hike, one of the characters rides in his car listening to Air America Radio, and it’s really the only thing going on in the picture. It’s just long shots of a person driving, and the only sound is that of the political debate on the radio. That’s fine. The problem is that these radio dialogues are obviously connected with the primary themes of the film, and it’s not really made to be subtle. We’re supposed to notice. Every subtle detail in the film is supposed to carry Important Meanings, and I don’t have a problem with that, the problem is that the filmmakers make these Important Meanings obvious, and the images lose their subtlety, and start coming across as preachy and ham-fisted. The magic of the film is in its subtlety, yet paradoxically the filmmakers have chosen to magnify its images to the point where it’s no longer beautiful. Terrence Malick’s work is an example of subtlety just for the sake of the beauty of subtlety, and though there is a message to his work as well, he doesn’t force it upon the viewer.
I enjoyed Old Joy, there were some really beautiful and evocative moments, but it really wasn’t as Important as it probably perceives itself to be. I wouldn’t mind recommending it to people though, it really was quite a beautiful work. Plus, Will Oldham and Yo La Tengo still rock.
Meanwhile, I’m going to try and fit in a viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth sometime this week. It has a 98 on Metacritic?! That makes it the 4th highest-rated film…of all time. Yeah, I need to see this. Possible report to come later. But then I get into conversations like this:
11:24:12 AM Roger: i think i’m just going to suck it up and go see it at some early showing on a weekday, alone
11:24:35 AM Roger: pretty sure i would kill the person next to me in terror if i saw it with other people
11:28:17 AM Keith: two people i know went to go see it, and they pretty much told me they were holding each other in fear the whole time
11:28:23 AM Keith: and then were kind of depressed after
Hah, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. Well, better than just passively slouching in the seat and glancing at the watch, right? Any moving experience is better than none, right? I’m sure that I’ll come out of Pan’s Labyrinth completely shaken to the core, but glad that I’d seen it. I need that kind of gut check sometimes. Or, I’m just masochistic. Hah. The Australian Stinging Trees are calling to me…
Okay, and the last thing I want to note is that I’ve made some changes to the design of the site. For one, I’ve added ‘Currently Listening’ and ‘Currently Reading’ to the sidebar for no real reason, other than to just indulge my tastes. The bigger change is that I’m going to stop posting links in these posts. Funny, because that was the one condition I set for myself when I started posting about non-birding material on this blog: I was going to post links, in order to provide some inter-post consistency. But more importantly, I wanted to ground the blog and keep it from veering off into emo diary land. I don’t feel like either goal has been successful or was even been necessary to begin with, so away it goes, it was clumsy to deal with anyways. In its place, I’m posting links onto my del.icio.us page, with the most recent bookmarks conveniently appearing in the sidebar to the right. The advantage here is that links will be constantly updating, so now if you’re totally bored you don’t have to rely on my procrastination-induced and/or slow-life post delays in order to waste time on the internet. I also figure that this will take less time and effort for me, which could be important once I get to Australia and have less of both on hand. We’ll see how it works out.
One more week at home! It’s probably time for me to tie up a lot of loose ends here, expect me to be pretty busy. We’ll talk later. Though I’m sure I’ll post about the conference championship games tomorrow, and possibly about Pan’s Labyrinth, or other things, we’ll see. Man, it’s weird to close a blog post without links now, I guess I’ll just stop here? Stop.