• All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.

  • I.F. Stone

zaterdag 13 december 2014

The Face of Democracy 2

THOUSANDS MASS IN NYC


John Pilger 73


War by media and the triumph of propaganda

5 December 2014

Why has so much journalism succumbed to propaganda? Why are censorship and distortion standard practice? Why is the BBC so often a mouthpiece of rapacious power? Why do the New York Times and the Washington Post deceive their readers?


Why are young journalists not taught to understand media agendas and to challenge the high claims and low purpose of fake objectivity? And why are they not taught that the essence of so much of what's called the mainstream media is not information, but power?


These are urgent questions. The world is facing the prospect of major war, perhaps nuclear war - with the United States clearly determined to isolate and provoke Russia and eventually China. This truth is being turned upside down and inside out by journalists, including those who promoted the lies that led to the bloodbath in Iraq in 2003.


The times we live in are so dangerous and so distorted in public perception that propaganda is no longer, as Edward Bernays called it, an 'invisible government.' It is the government. It rules directly without fear of contradiction and its principal aim is the conquest of us: our sense of the world, our ability to separate truth from lies.


The information age is actually a media age. We have war by media; censorship by media; demonology by media; retribution by media; diversion by media - a surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.


This power to create a new 'reality' has building for a long time. Forty-five years ago, a book entitled The Greening of America caused a sensation. On the cover were these words: 'There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual.'


I was a correspondent in the United States at the time and recall the overnight elevation to guru status of the author, a young Yale academic, Charles Reich. His message was that truth-telling and political action had failed and only 'culture' and introspection could change the world.


Within a few years, driven by the forces of profit, the cult of 'me-ism' had all but overwhelmed our sense of acting together, our sense of social justice and internationalism. Class, gender and race were separated. The personal was the political, and the media was the message.


In the wake of the cold war, the fabrication of new 'threats' completed the political disorientation of those who, 20 years earlier, would have formed a vehement opposition.


In 2003, I filmed an interview in Washington with Charles Lewis, the distinguished American investigative journalist. We discussed the invasion of Iraq a few months earlier. I asked him, 'What if the freest media in the world had seriously challenged George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and investigated their claims, instead of channeling what turned out to be crude propaganda?'


He replied that if we journalists had done our job 'there is a very, very good chance we would have not gone to war in Iraq.'


That's a shocking statement, and one supported by other famous journalists to whom I put the same question. Dan Rather, formerly of CBS, gave me the same answer.  David Rose of the Observer and senior journalists and producers in the BBC, who wished to remain anonymous, gave me the same answer.


In other words, had journalists done their job, had they questioned and investigated the propaganda instead of amplifying it, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children might be alive today; and millions might not have fled their homes; the sectarian war between Sunni and Shia might not have ignited, and the infamous Islamic State might not now exist.


Even now, despite the millions who took to the streets in protest, most of the public in western countries have little idea of the sheer scale of the crime committed by our governments in Iraq. Even fewer are aware that, in the 12 years before the invasion, the US and British governments set in motion a holocaust by denying the civilian population of Iraq a means to live.


Those are the words of the senior British official responsible for sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s - a medieval siege that caused the deaths of half a million children under the age of five, reported Unicef. The official's name is Carne Ross. In the Foreign Office in London, he was known as 'Mr. Iraq.' Today, he is a truth-teller of how governments deceive and how journalists willingly spread the deception. 'We would feed journalists factoids of sanitized intelligence," he told me, "or we'd freeze them out.'


The main whistleblower during this terrible, silent period was Denis Halliday. Then Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and the senior UN official in Iraq, Halliday resigned rather than implement policies he described as genocidal.  He estimates that sanctions killed more than a million Iraqis.


What then happened to Halliday was instructive. He was airbrushed. Or he was vilified. On the BBC's Newsnight programme, the presenter Jeremy Paxman shouted at him: 'Aren't you just an apologist for Saddam Hussein?' The Guardian recently described this as one of Paxman's 'memorable moments.' Last week, Paxman signed a £1 million book deal.


The handmaidens of suppression have done their job well. Consider the effects. In 2013, a ComRes poll found that a majority of the British public believed the casualty toll in Iraq was less than 10,000 - a tiny fraction of the truth. A trail of blood that goes from Iraq to London has been scrubbed almost clean.


Rupert Murdoch is said to be the godfather of the media mob, and no one should doubt the augmented power of his newspapers - all 127 of them, with a combined circulation of 40 million, and his Fox network. But the influence of Murdoch's empire is no greater than its reflection of the wider media.


The most effective propaganda is found not in the Sun or on Fox News - but beneath a liberal halo. When the New York Times published claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, its fake evidence was believed, because it wasn't Fox News; it was the New York Times.


The same is true of the Washington Post and the Guardian, both of which have played a critical role in conditioning their readers to accept a new and dangerous cold war. All three liberal newspapers have misrepresented events in Ukraine as a malign act by Russia - when, in fact, the fascist led coup in Ukraine was the work of the United States, aided by Germany and Nato.


This inversion of reality is so pervasive that Washington's military encirclement and intimidation of Russia is not contentious. It's not even news, but suppressed behind a smear and scare campaign of the kind I grew up with during the first cold war.


Once again, the evil empire is coming to get us, led by another Stalin or, perversely, a new Hitler. Name your demon and let rip.


The suppression of the truth about Ukraine is one of the most complete news blackouts I can remember. The biggest Western military build-up in the Caucasus and eastern Europe since world war two is blacked out. Washington's secret aid to Kiev and its neo-Nazi brigades responsible for war crimes against the population of eastern Ukraine is blacked out. Evidence that contradicts propaganda that Russia was responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner is blacked out.


And again, supposedly liberal media are the censors. Citing no facts, no evidence, one journalist identified a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine as the man who shot down the airliner. This man, he wrote, was known as The Demon. He was a scary man who frightened the journalist. That was the evidence.


Many in the western media haves worked hard to present the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine as outsiders in their own country, almost never as Ukrainians seeking a federation within Ukraine and as Ukrainian citizens resisting a foreign-orchestrated coup against their elected government.


What the Russian president has to say is of no consequence; he is a pantomime villain who can be abused with impunity. An American general who heads Nato and is straight out of Dr. Strangelove - one General Breedlove - routinely claims Russian invasions without a shred of visual evidence. His impersonation of Stanley Kubrick's General Jack D. Ripper is pitch perfect.


Forty thousand Ruskies were massing on the border, according to Breedlove. That was good enough for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Observer - the latter having previously distinguished itself with lies and fabrications that backed Blair's invasion of Iraq, as its former reporter, David Rose, revealed.


There is almost the joi d'esprit of a class reunion. The drum-beaters of the Washington Post are the very same editorial writers who declared the existence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction to be "hard facts".


'If you wonder,' wrote Robert Parry, 'how the world could stumble into world war three - much as it did into world war one a century ago - all you need to do is look at the madness that has enveloped virtually the entire US political/media structure over Ukraine where a false narrative of white hats versus black hats took hold early and has proved impervious to facts or reason.'


Parry, the journalist who revealed Iran-Contra, is one of the few who investigate the central role of the media in this 'game of chicken,' as the Russian foreign minister called it. But is it a game? As I write this, the US Congress votes on Resolution 758 which, in a nutshell, says: 'Let's get ready for war with Russia.'
In the 19th century, the writer Alexander Herzen described secular liberalism as 'the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this.' Today, this divine right is far more violent and dangerous than anything the Muslim world throws up, though perhaps its greatest triumph is the illusion of free and open information.


In the news, whole countries are made to disappear. Saudi Arabia, the source of extremism  and western-backed terror, is not a story, except when it drives down the price of oil. Yemen has endured twelve years of American drone attacks. Who knows? Who cares?


In 2009, the University of the West of England published the results of a ten-year study of the BBC's coverage of Venezuela. Of 304 broadcast reports, only three mentioned any of the positive policies introduced by the government of Hugo Chavez. The greatest literacy programme in human history received barely a passing reference.


In Europe and the United States, millions of readers and viewers know next to nothing about the remarkable, life-giving changes implemented in Latin America, many of them inspired by Chavez. Like the BBC, the reports of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the rest of the respectable western media were notoriously in bad faith. Chavez was mocked even on his deathbed. How is this explained, I wonder, in schools of journalism?


Why are millions of people in Britain are persuaded that a collective punishment called 'austerity' is necessary?


Following the economic crash in 2008, a rotten system was exposed. For a split second the banks were lined up as crooks with obligations to the public they had betrayed.


But within a few months - apart from a few stones lobbed over excessive corporate 'bonuses' - the message changed. The mugshots of guilty bankers vanished from the tabloids and something called 'austerity' became the burden of millions of ordinary people. Was there ever a sleight of hand as brazen?


Today, many of the premises of civilised life in Britain are being dismantled in order to pay back a fraudulent debt - the debt of crooks. The 'austerity' cuts are said to be £83 billion. That's almost exactly the amount of tax avoided by the same banks and by corporations like Amazon and Murdoch's News UK. Moreover, the crooked banks are given an annual subsidy of £100bn in free insurance and guarantees - a figure that would fund the entire National Health Service.


The economic crisis is pure propaganda. Extreme policies now rule Britain, the United States, much of Europe, Canada and Australia. Who is standing up for the majority? Who is telling their story? Who's keeping record straight? Isn't that what journalists are meant to do?


In 1977, Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, revealed that more than 400 journalists and news executives worked for the CIA. They included journalists from the New York Times, Time and the TV networks. In 1991, Richard Norton Taylor of the Guardian revealed something similar in this country.


None of this is necessary today. I doubt that anyone paid the Washington Post and many other media outlets to accuse Edward Snowden of aiding terrorism. I doubt that anyone pays those who  routinely smear Julian Assange - though other rewards can be plentiful.


It's clear to me that the main reason Assange has attracted such venom, spite and jealously is that WikiLeaks tore down the facade of a corrupt political elite held aloft by journalists. In heralding an extraordinary era of disclosure, Assange made enemies by illuminating and shaming the media's gatekeepers, not least on the newspaper that published and appropriated his great scoop. He became not only a target, but a golden goose.


Lucrative book and Hollywood movie deals were struck and media careers launched or kick-started on the back of WikiLeaks and its founder. People have made big money, while WikiLeaks has struggled to survive.


None of this was mentioned in Stockholm on 1 December when the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, shared with Edward Snowden the Right Livelihood Award, known as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. What was shocking about this event was that Assange and WikiLeaks were airbrushed. They didn't exist. They were unpeople. No one spoke up for the man who pioneered digital whistleblowing and handed the Guardian one of the greatest scoops in history. Moreover, it was Assange and his WikiLeaks team who effectively - and brilliantly - rescued Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and sped him to safety. Not a word.


What made this censorship by omission so ironic and poignant and disgraceful was that the ceremony was held in the Swedish parliament - whose craven silence on the Assange case has colluded with a grotesque miscarriage of justice in Stockholm.


'When the truth is replaced by silence,' said the Soviet dissident Yevtushenko, 'the silence is a lie.'


It's this kind of silence we journalists need to break. We need to look in the mirror. We need to call to account an unaccountable media that services power and a psychosis that threatens world war.


In the 18th century, Edmund Burke described the role of the press as a Fourth Estate checking the powerful. Was that ever true? It certainly doesn't wash any more. What we need is a Fifth Estate: a journalism that monitors, deconstructs and counters propaganda and teaches the young to be agents of people, not power. We need what the Russians called perestroika - an insurrection of subjugated knowledge. I would call it real journalism.


It's 100 years since the First World War. Reporters then were rewarded and knighted for their silence and collusion. At the height of the slaughter, British prime minister David Lloyd George confided in C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian: 'If people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow, but of course they don't know and can't know.'


It's time they knew.


Follow John Pilger on twitter @johnpilger


U.S. Torture 12

'We Tortured Some Folks,' But 'That's Not Who We Are'

Posted: Updated: 
OBAMA
Last August, President Barack Obama admitted to the press: "we tortured some folks." But he also added that torturing people "is not who we are." His CIA director,John Brennan, calls the CIA torturers "patriots." So which is it? Are they "patriots," deserving of our admiration, or sadists who engaged in acts that are contrary to "who we are?"
The Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary report on CIA torture concludes that at least 26 of the people the CIA contractors tortured were innocent ofany ties to terrorism whatsoever.
One of the CIA contractors, James Mitchell, was on TV lately where he was called the "architect" of the torture program. His Spokane, Washington company, Mitchell, Jessen, and Associates, received $81 million in taxpayer money for services rendered.
CIA Director John Brennan argues that people like Mitchell and his business partner, Bruce Jessen, were doing legitimate intelligence work. But isn't it also possible that these "patriots" were acting out their post-9/11 revenge fantasies against a bunch of Arabs and Afghans who fell into their clutches about whom they knew very little?
Mitchell and Jessen had no specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda or international terrorism; they didn't speak Arabic or Pashto, and had no experience interrogating prisoners.
What they did know about as psychologists was how to drill down into the human psyche. And they knew how to reverse engineer the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) techniques designed to help U.S. personnel counter torturers. They applied the same appalling techniques to their own interrogations. Given their lack of qualifications to head such an endeavor it's likely Mitchell and Jessen were just winging it.
Can we get our $81 million back?
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney might have "authorized" the torture program, but it's still a war crime that violates the Convention Against Torture, the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the U.S. Constitution. Letting the people responsible for torture ride off into the sunset free of any criminal charges throws out the window international and domestic law, as well as almost everything we've learned from the Nuremberg Trials, Hannah Arendt, or the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
One of the CIA's "black" (secret) torture sites was located at Guantanamo, which should raise some thorny legal issues because, unlike Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Afghanistan, or Thailand, the Supreme Court has ruled that Guantanamo is considered "U.S. soil."
Absent any criminal prosecutions, the only conclusion we will be left with is that these guys really are "patriots" and torturing people really is "who we are." But we shouldn't need "experts" like Max BootJoe Klein, or other apologists for torture to judge the morality of turning to torturers posing as "doctors" to root out suspected terrorists.
The morality and ethics of whether or not the CIA can torture people in our name are non-negotiable. There is no argument that can be made to justify this atrocity. The corporate media are treating torture as if it's just another "issue" like immigration reform or the federal budget. It isn't. You cannot justify the unjustifiable. People who attempt to apologize for torture done in their name are embarrassing themselves; raising their heads to be counted as barbarians at the gate.
We don't fight against terrorists to become more like them, but to maintain our differences. And after all of the criticism the Arab and Islamic world has gotten for being behind the West in embracing the Enlightenment from the Sam Harrises andBill Mahers, our own government tossed out any semblance of Enlightenment thinking against torturing prisoners going back to Voltaire and Beccaria.
Not long ago Alan Dershowitz was advocating "torture warrants," whereby judges could issue a legal justification for torture. I suppose that would be better than what we had: the CIA acting in secret and employing contractors to torture people willy-nilly.
Mitchell and Jessen and their underlings weren't going after any "ticking time bombs." They wanted to use coercion to get the names of other potential bad guys. The Senate report shows that they routinely kept prisoners in solitary confinement in a dark hole for up to 47 days just to "soften them up" before asking them any questions. So much for disarming the "ticking time bomb." The report also shows that any real intelligence gleaned from the interrogations came before prisoners were subjected to torture.
One of the creepiest revelations from the Senate report is the description of a torturer who has broken down one of his subjects through water-boarding and other "techniques" to the point where he can merely raise an eyebrow or snap his fingers and that broken human being would willingly go over to the water board and strap himself in. That's straight out of Orwell's 1984.
Mitchell and Jessen (and a number of other agents who are still receiving government salaries) engaged in "interrogating" their prisoners with beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, dark and cold or light and hot environments, rectal feeding, rectal hydration, sensory overload or sensory deprivation, and any other humiliating abuse that leapt into their imaginations.
One prisoner under their charge died of hypothermia on a cold concrete floor after being shackled to a post stripped of his pants.
The torture report sort of gave the country another "teachable moment." But will we learn anything other than how "awesome" is the United States?
In recent news cycles since the report was made public we've seen the corporate media clearly go in damage control mode. The networks and cable TV stations apparently see it as their responsibility to provide journalistic "balance," as if torture is just another "issue" to bloviate about with talking points and a bifurcated "pro" and "con" frame. They bring on their shows people like former CIA director Michael Hayden (who has lied to Congress) and other torture apologists and propagandists to spin the story out of existence.
During the George W. Bush years there was a brief public debate about whether or not waterboarding was "torture." The late Christopher Hitchens, who was an important intellectual cheerleader for the Iraq War and an advocate for an aggressive "war on terror" wasn't convinced that waterboarding was torture so he agreed to have it done to him. A few other reporters also willingly subjected themselves to waterboarding as a publicity stunt to "see what it was like." I doubt if any pro-torture reporter or intellectual would agree to undergo rectal feeding as Hitchens did with waterboarding to find out if it's really "torture." We won't see Dick Cheney on teevee with a blender and an enema bag any time soon.
I'll ask again: Can we get our $81 million back?
The United States claims to uphold "universal" values such as democracy and human rights while trampling the principle of "universalism," which holds that all nations, big or small, powerful or weak, must respect international law. Allowing CIA career employees or contractors to get away with torturing people free from legal accountability telegraphs to the rest of the world that the United States reserves unto itself the right to commit war crimes.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the Italian fascists used to attack the gastrointestinal tracts of their left-wing opponents by pouring castor oil down their throats or administering castor oil enemas. Rectal feeding to punish and humiliate has been around for a while; but the trains ran on time.
Since it appears that the CIA torturers never will be brought to justice it makes it more likely that sometime in the future, with the nation facing a new peril, a different cast of "patriots" might direct these kinds of "enhanced interrogation techniques" closer to home. Maybe next time their targets won't be foreigners suspected of terrorism but will be American citizens who hold political views they don't like. And the black sites, instead of being located in places like Lithuania or Poland, might be in Peoria or Tulsa.

George Monbiot 8


Posted: 11 Dec 2014 11:31 PM PST

The interactions between wildlife and the physical planet are more complex and fascinating than we could ever have imagined.


By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 12 December 2014.

I can hear you muttering already: he’s completely lost it this time. He’s written a 2,000-word article on whale poo. I admit that at first it might be hard to see the relevance to your life. But I hope that by the time you have finished this article you will have become as obsessed with marine faecal plumes as I am. What greater incentive could there be to read on?

In truth it’s not just about whale poo, though that’s an important component. It’s about the remarkable connectivity, on this small and spherical planet, of living processes. Nothing human beings do, and nothing that takes place in the natural world, occurs in isolation.
When I was a student, back in the days when mammoths roamed the earth, ecologists tended to believe that the character of living systems was largely determined by abiotic factors. This means influences such as local climate, geology or the availability of nutrients. But it now seems that this belief arose from the study of depleted ecosystems. The rules they derived now appear to have described not the world in its natural state, but the world of our creation. We now know that living systems which retain their large carnivores and large herbivores often behave in radically different ways from those which have lost them.
Large carnivores can transform both the populations and the behaviour of large herbivores. In turn this can change the nature and structure of the plant community, which in turn affects processes such as soil erosion, river movements and carbon storage. The availability of nutrients, the physical geography of the land, even the composition of the atmosphere: all now turn out to be affected by animals. Living systems exert far more powerful impacts on the planet and its processes than we suspected.

I’m talking about trophic cascades: ecological processes that tumble from the top of an ecosystem to the bottom. (Trophic means relating to food and feeding.) It turns out that many living processes work from the top down, rather than the bottom up.

Trophic cascades have often been detected in places in which large carnivores still exist or have been reintroduced. But what has been discovered so far is likely to underestimate their natural prevalence. For what we now describe as “top predators” are often – from the perspective of palaeoecology – nothing of the kind.

Species such as wolves and lynx, for example, would be more accurately described as mesopredators: belonging to the second rank. They would once have had to contend with lions, hyaenas, scimitar cats, sabretooths, bear dogs and other such monsters, throughout their ranges. Even the giant lions and giant sabretooths that lived in North America until the first humans arrived could not unequivocally be considered the kings of the jungle. The short-faced bear, which stood 13 feet in its hind socks, appears to have been a specialist scavenger: specialising in driving giant lions and giant sabretooths off their prey.
One hypothesis which might help to explain the sudden disappearance from many parts of the world of the megafauna, following the first arrival of human beings, is that we triggered trophic cascades of destruction.

For example, before humans reached Australia, the continent teemed with great beasts. There was a spiny anteater the size of a pig; a giant herbivore a bit like a wombat, which weighed two tonnes; a marsupial tapir as big as a horse; a ten-foot kangaroo; a marsupial lion with opposable thumbs and a stronger bite than any other known mammal, which I believe was a specialist carnivore of giant kangaroos; a horned tortoise eight feet long; a monitor lizard bigger than the Nile crocodile. Most of them, and many other marvellous creatures, disappeared between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. At roughly the same time, the dense rainforests which covered much of that continent began to be replaced by the grass and scrubby trees which populate much of the outback today.

One paper suggests that the first humans in Australia hunted some of the large animals to extinction, and that this caused the destruction of the rainforests, which in turn wiped out much of the remaining fauna. How? It postulates that when the giant herbivores disappeared, the leaves and twigs that would otherwise have been browsed began to build up on the forest floor, creating a fuel supply that allowed wildfires to rage unhindered through the rainforests. This catalysed the shift to grass and scrub.

In Europe, ecologists are beginning to wake up to the fact that our ecosystems were and remain shaped by elephants, rhinos, hippos and the other great beasts that lived here during the last interglacial period, when the climate was similar to today’s. You can still see evidence of co-evolution with elephants and rhinos in the way that our deciduous trees respond to attack.

In other words, the natural world is even more fascinating and complex than we had imagined. And we are only just beginning to understand just how rich and strange ecological processes might be.

I promised whale poo, and whale poo you shall have. Studies in the 1970s proposed that the great reduction in the large whales of the southern oceans would lead to an increase in the population of krill, their major prey. It never materialised. Instead there has been a long-term decline. How could that be true? It now turns out that whales maintain the populations of their prey.

They often feed at depth, but they seldom defecate there, because when they dive the stress this exerts on the body requires the shutdown of some of its functions. So they perform their ablutions when they come up to breathe. What they are doing, in other words, is transporting nutrients from the depths, including waters too dark for photosynthesis to occur, into the photic zone, where plants can live.

In the southern oceans, iron is a limiting nutrient, without which the plant plankton at the bottom of the food chain cannot reproduce and grow. By producing their poonamis – sorry, faecal plumes – in the surface waters, the whales fertilise the plant plankton on which the krill and fish depend. This effect, known as the “whale pump” has been hypothesised for several years. But now there is some experimental evidence to support it. A team of scientists at the University of Tasmania collected some pygmy blue whale poo (who knew that marine biology was so rich with possibility?) and grew plankton in water containing varying concentrations of it. They found that the richer the mix, the greater the productivity. No surprises there.

Separate research, in the Gulf of Maine, estimates that whales and seals, by defecating at the surface and recycling nutrients there, would, before their numbers were reduced by hunting, have been responsible for releasing three times as much nitrogen into those waters as the sea absorbed directly from the atmosphere. The volume of plant plankton has declined across much of the world over the past century, probably as a result of rising global temperatures. But the decline appears to have been been steepest where whales and seals have been most heavily hunted. The fishermen who have insisted that predators such as seals should be killed might have been reducing, not enhancing, their catch.

But it doesn’t end there. Plant plankton, when they die, slowly descend into the abyss, taking with them the carbon they have absorbed from the atmosphere. It is hard to quantify, but when they were at their historical populations, whales are likely to have made a small but significant contribution to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The recovery of the great whales, which werereduced by between two thirds and 90%, but whose numbers are slowly climbing again in some parts of the oceans, could be seen as a benign form of geo-engineering.

This should not be the only, or even the main, reason why we should wish them to return, but the way in which whales change the composition of the atmosphere provides yet another refutation of the idea that we can manipulate the living world with simple, predictable results.

With the Sustainable Human team, I’ve just produced a second trophic cascades video, about the whale pump. The first – about the unexpected impact of wolves in Yellowstone National Park – has been watched 13 million times. The belief that people cannot handle complexity is a myth. There is a tremendous public appetite to understand the world in all its fascinating detail. Which could explain why my articles have become longer and longer.

Talking of which, I haven’t finished with the whales yet. Another paper proposes that as the great whales declined, killer whales, some of which would have specialised in feeding on them, switched their diet to animals such as seals and sea lions. This is likely to have had major effects on fish populations.

But now, in the Aleutian archipelago, the reduction of seals by human hunters appears to have caused the killer whales to switch their diet again, in this case to sea otters. A large part of the diet of sea otters consists of sea urchins. As the otters have declined, the number of urchins has risen, to the point that in some places they have grazed the vast kelp forests that once thronged the coastal waters of the western seaboard of the Americas until almost nothing remains. Not only has this caused the collapse of the coastal ecosystem, but it has also caused the release of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as the carbon stored in the kelp has been oxidized.

And even that is not the end of the story. It now seems that whaling may have been a leading cause of the decline of the Californian condor. Condors appear to have specialised in scavenging the carcasses of stranded whales. As whales were destroyed, the condors were deprived of a major food source, and were forced to feed on dead terrestrial animals. Some of these carcasses are of animals that die after being shot and then lost by human hunters. The ingestion of lead from bullets and shot has been one of the reasons for the fragility of the condors’ grip on existence.

Who would have guessed that the impacts of whaling would cascade through so many living systems?

(Incidentally, until humans arrived in the Americas, the condor was one of the smaller scavenging birds. The North American roc (Aiolornis incredibilis), had a wingspan of sixteen feet and a hooked bill the length of a man’s foot. No skull of another predatory bird, the Argentine roc (Argentavis magnificens) has yet been found, but the available bones suggest that its wings were 26 feet across and that it weighed twelve stone.)

And it’s not just whales. When plant plankton are attacked by the small animals that eat them, some of them release a chemical called dimethyl sulphide. This compound attracts predators, that feed on the animals eating the plants. It appears that the tube-nosed birds, such as albatrosses, fulmars, shearwaters and petrels, which have a highly developed sense of smell, can detect dimethyl sulphide, and use its presence to find their prey. Not only might this help to protect the plant plankton from some of the animals grazing on them, but by defecating in the feeding zone, the birds help to fertilise the plants that brought them there.

There’s one more twist. Dimethyl sulphide seems to have a powerful role in the formation of clouds at sea. Because the sea has a dark surface, and clouds are white, the greater the cloud cover, the more sunlight is reflected back into space. So as plant plankton are attacked, they might help to cool the planet.

There are similar effects on land. Before serious conservation efforts began in the 1960s, wildebeest numbers in the Serengeti fell from about 1.2 million to 300,000. The result was similar to the hypothesised mechanism for the destruction of much of the Australian rainforest. As dry grass and other vegetation that the wildebeest would otherwise have eaten accumulated, wildfires ravaged around 80% of the Serengeti every year.

As wildebeest numbers have recovered, the frequency of fires has fallen and more dung is incorporated into the soil. The Serengeti has been transformed from a net carbon source to a net carbon sink: a shift equivalent to the entire current emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels in East Africa.

But it’s important not to generalise from one example. In other parts of the world, grazing animals can increase the production of greenhouse gases. Domestic livestock are a major cause of global warming. So are some wild herbivores. As moose numbers in Canada have risen, partly due to the destruction of their predators by people, through a series of complicated impacts on both vegetation and soil they have sharply reduced the storage of carbon in the boreal forests. One estimate suggests that the difference in carbon storage between high and low moose numbers is the equivalent of between 42 and 95% of the carbon dioxide Canada produces through the burning of fossil fuels. Allowing wolves to return to their historical levels could make a massive difference to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Nor should we imagine that wolves and whales and wildebeest and plant plankton and sea otters alone can prevent the climate breakdown that the unchecked consumption of fossil fuels will cause. Annual plant growth cannot match the burning of fossil fuels, which mobilises the stored remains of many centuries of accumulated plant carbon every year. But these first inklings of the unexpected impacts of our destruction should provide yet another reason for treating the living planet gently. Everything is connected.
I would hate to see the protection of wildlife reduced to a calculation about greenhouse gases. For me, there are powerful intrinsic reasons for defending the natural world: because it is wonderful; because it enriches and enchants our lives; because to understand how these magnificent and complex systems work is to pass through a portal to an enchanted kingdom.

But the little we now know of trophic cascades and the unexpected complexities they reveal, which doubtless presages a much deeper and richer understanding in the years to come, enhances for me the awe with which I contemplate our world of wonders. It makes me all the more determined to protect it from destruction.