Albatross - A sad love story

"Until my gastly tale is told, this hearth within me burns" - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Midway atoll, located at the middle of the remote North Pacific Ocean, is the farthest you can get from any continent on Earth. There, tens of thousands of Laysan albatross chicks lie dead on the ground, their bodies filled with plastic. Chris Jordan, artist and filmmaker, started visiting this remote place in 2009 and returned again and again over eight years to document the cycles of life and death of these magnificent seabirds.

Its a movie that moves you to tears of sadness and joy over the way the Albatross fights to survive in a world degraded by humans. Most of all, its a beautiful piece of art. Its hard, emotionally, to watch but we cannot turn our eyes away from reality. Can we let ourselves be moved deeply, to take action to transform our socities for a better future, not just for us but also for the sake of other living beings on this planet? I hope so, I sure do.

You can watch the entire movie for free at

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Democracy enough to handle ecological crisis?

Pagoda Japan. Source: WaSZI CCO Creative Commons

How to handle a crisis of overexploitation

Throughout history, agricultural societies have had to struggle with the balance between population growth and maintaining sufficient resources to support themselves. Some failed to manage their resource base sustainably which lead to collapse or disbanding while others took measures to ensure more sustainable use of their lands and persisted. 

In modern times we all assume that democracy is a better option than authoritarian forms of government. Of course no one likes the idea of abuse of power and state violence that usually comes along with such forms of government. But are democracies inherently superior to authoritarian regimes in dealing with crises such as resource depletion? 

To adapt to/or manage scarcity governments may have to do some unpopular things like restricting consumption, manage usage rights of natural resources and punish offenders. Can leaders find support for such policies through elections? Its very much an open question. Small communities have been known to manage pasture lands in a democratic manner more sustainably. But today's societies are huge in comparison. 

Let's look at a historical case in which the Japanese, that had relatively large cities in terms of number even back during feudal times, managed to establish more sustainable forest management through both top-down and bottom-up practices.

Forest Management in Feudal Japan

Ecological crisis

Japan had a serious deforestation problem 300 years ago as a consequence of a growing population and unsustainable forest use. Forests were overexploited by logging mainly for timber and fuelwood. By 1570 Japan's population had reached 10 million people and needs for forest products had increased correspondingly. With the advent of the Tokugawa shogunate and peace, followed by rapid growth of cities and construction of castles, temples and shrines, logging increased during the 1600s to a scale never before experienced in Japan. Conflict between villagers and rulers over the use of forest lands became intense. By 1670 the population had increased to nearly 30 million and all the old growth forest had been completely logged, except for in Hokkaido. The supply of timber and other forest products was running out. Soil erosion, floods, landslides and barren lands were becoming common. Japan was headed for ecological disaster. 

Feudal lords take action

There were three principal types of forest land tenure during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867). Feudal lords tenure, communal tenure and individual tenure. Individual tenure failed to develop because individual land ownership was prohibited in principle by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Therefore, almost all Japanese forest land tenure was either the feudal lords tenure or communal. 

Access to the forest owned by feudal lords was strictly limited and those who logged illegally were severely punished. A typical example of forest owned and managed by a feudal lord was the Kiso area that was owned and managed by a relative of the Shogun.

The two major cities Edo and Osaka and forest management places like Kiso. Source: Iwamoto (2002)

Before the Tokugawa period, Kiso was covered with thick forest but by the late 17th century iso forest resource had deteriorated greatly. The feudal lord therefore carried out the first reform in 1665, instituting seedling protection, strengthening of patrols and selective cutting. The reform reduced timber production by half and cut the feudal lords income severely. Only a few years later the lord ordered an increase in timber production for financial reasons. Even though the reform first failed the second reform was planned in 1724. In this reform, timber production was reduced by more than 60% and this time it succeeded, carrying on for 30 years and thus allowing the forest to recover. 

Common lands

During the Tokugawa period most Japanese people made their living by agriculture, managing uncultivated mountainous common lands surrounding their villages. Common forest lands provided a wide variety of ecosystem services such as timber, fuelwood, fertilizer, feed, clean water, erosion control etc. In the late 17th century, intensive forestry with artificial planting was begun by members (farmers) of the commons in response to increasing demand for wood. People planted valuable conifers such as sugi and hinoki and developing new techniques for planting, thinning and pruning plantations necessary for high-quality timber. Wandering scholars wrote silviculture manuals and traveled around the country spreading the new technology from village to village. Forest management stimulated new social institutions for the ruling elite and villagers to cooperate on timber production in a way that provided villagers incentives to produce timber: yamawari (dividing use rights of common lands among families), nenkiyama (long term leases of forest lands to villagers by the rulers), and buwakibayashi (villagers producing timber on rulers land and sharing the harvest with the elites). Slowly but surely reforesting took place. 

Lessons from history

First of, action on the part of the ruling elite and villagers did not happen until forest resources were severely degraded and conflict arose between the two. New management practices were forced upon the population and breaking the rules meant severe punishment. Reforms sometimes failed due to financial interests and needs. Relying heavily on one sector for the majority of income was a bad strategy. A more diversified income probably helped later reforms to succeed. New forest management practices lead to the development of new social institutions that were more cooperative and respectful of usage rights. During hard times forests may have been overexploited but reforestation efforts during easier times helped prevent the worst of outcomes. The feudal lords were probably not very lenient towards villagers and ordinary people must have, at first, disliked the decision to cut back on timber production and being punished for logging in certain areas. However, they adapted to this new reality and started planting trees to meet the demand. Its a case of non-democratic rule that actually had a positive outcome in terms of more sustainable use of Japan's forests. Now, it should be mentioned that forests were again overexploitation during the second world war. And perhaps the previous reforms only succeeded due to times of peace. It also should be mentioned that after the war forests, both from common and lords lands, where taken up into public lands managed by the state. But it's still an interesting example to ponder. Perhaps a mix of both top-down and bottom-up rules is needed but to achieve successful management but its hard to imagine it happening without some amount of unpopular decision-making if the society is large.

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Chronic illness major cause of premature deaths

The probability of dying from chronic illness between 30 and 70 years of age. Credit: NCD Countdown 2030

If you live in the US, China or UK you have a higher risk of dying early from chronic illnesses like cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes than people in Australia, Japan, Spain or Sweden. These are some of the findings in a detailed global analysis of deaths related to non-communicable diseases (NCD). The study is a collaboration between the Imperial College London, World Health Organisation and NCD alliance.

Chronic illnesses are the main cause of premature death for most countries and a larger danger to human health than traditional foes such as bacteria or viruses. Non-communicable diseases kill nearly 41 million people every year, about seven out of ten deaths globally, of which 17 million of these deaths are classed as premature (i.e. before the age of 70). 

Overall, women in Spain, South Korea, Japan and Switzerland were least likely to die prematurely from chronic illness while the lowest risk for men were Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. 

According to the analysis, the situation is stagnating or deteriorating in 15 countries for women and 24 for men. A multitude of factors such as alcohol and tobacco use, pollution, stress and lack of sleep, diets and exercise, early treatment etc could be contributing to increases in chronic illnesses. 

In Europe, women in Moldova (17%) and Ukraine (16%) have the highest chance of dying from key NCD and the lowest chance in Spain (6%) and Switzerland (7%). For men i Europe, the highest chance is seen in Russia (37%) and Belarus (35%) and the lowest chance in Iceland (10%) and Switzerland (11%).

The chances for men and women in the US to die prematurely of NCD is worse than in Vietnam, Turkey, Panama, Liberia, Mexico and Angola. In other words, the highest risk among all high-income nations.

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Tipping points in social animals

A hysteresis window between an environmental condition (heat) and group behavior (degree of infighting) in social spiders as they respond to heat stress. Groups that have been in an agitated state (red) tend to remain agitated, whereas calm groups (blue) tend to remain calm over a common temperature range. Credit: Mesa Schumacher

Complex adaptive systems

We know that there are tipping points in many different complex systems. Although they may be hard to study and exactly define. For example in large systems such as the global economy or climate system. A recent study shows beautifully, in simpler ways, how social animals that lives in communities also have tipping points, before the function of the system changes fundamentally.

In this case the research focused on the communal spider which lay their eggs, spin webs and share their prey in cooperatives colonies, from Massachusetts to Argentina, in relatively cool temperatures. However, only until 31 degrees C, after which they start to attack each other. Suggesting a tipping point where some small perturbation can cause an abrupt and dramatic shift in the behavior of the system.

Reversal is difficult

As ecologists familiar with complex systems all know, once the system crosses the tipping point it will be difficult or perhaps even impossible to return to its previous state even if environmental conditions are reversed. This phenomenon, called hysteresis, implies that a system can have two very different stable states and which state the system is in depends on environmental conditions and its historical dynamics.

Its common that conservation efforts claim that returning to previous environmental conditions in a ecosystem will lead to a recover. However, this is not necessarily true if the system has already crossed a tipping point, in which case you may have to rewind the system to a much earlier set of environmental conditions to drive its recovery. As demonstrated in the studied heat-stressed spiders, turning temperatures down just below 30 degrees C did not alter the behavior of fighting. Not until temperatures dropped down to 28 C degrees did the communal spiders stop fighting again.

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