Friday, September 29, 2006

Reading Signs--or Not

A species in transition ... hiring "forest people" for an ecotourism experiment ... the Ogallala aquifer running out of water: These are stories that appeared in the news in September. They are accounts from different parts of the world, seemingly unrelated, and yet are connected in important ways.

They are stories that have a lot to do with our ability to think critically as well as our willingness to conceive of something else. These are also tales about making choices--or not making them.

Paleontologists in Ethiopia believe they may have discovered a 3.3 million-year-old fossil of a child, estimated to be about 3 years old when she died. The child is a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species.

What is of possible major significance is that the scientists think that this child represents a "species in transition." The lower limbs are similar to early humans, but the upper limbs are more like a gorilla. Iron Age religious tales seem to pale in comparison when we consider the marvelous possibility of where we humans may have evolved. The scientists named the fossil Selam. The word means "peace" in the Amharic language.

Now try to imagine--not the beginning of the Neolithic Era--some 10,000 years ago, but the origins of our species Homo sapien, 100,000 years ago--200,000 years ago? And now go back one million years, two million years....

Attempts at ecotourism in third world countries have often been controversial. Who actually benefits? Do the flora and fauna thrive? Does the fact that rich first-world residents paying a lot of money to visit the "natural" world actually benefit indigenous people and the wildlife, and not just some corrupt elite running the country?

In one of the poorest parts of the world in central Africa, where life expectancy does not reach 40, three countries, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Congo Republic are establishing one gigantic national preserve larger than the state of Rhode Island. The World Wildlife Fund is guiding its development. The local Bayaka Pygmies have been hired as trackers and guides. The goal is sustainable development that can benefit the people that live in the area over a long period of time, as well as protect rare and endangered species like the western lowland gorilla. Now go back one million years, two million years...

The natural Ogallala aquifer in Western Kansas is getting low on water. This is part of the United States called the "Wheat Belt," in a country that has been the breadbasket of the world. But energy is getting more and more expensive, and so is water.

Wheat was the crop that was planted, in the perfect location, when the homesteaders first arrived in the 1860s. It thrived in the hot central plains on little water. But over the past twenty or thirty years farmers have moved to corn and soybeans, used primarily for such things as animal feed and high fructose syrups. There was money to be made; unfortunately, corn and soybeans need twice the amount of water as wheat--but the Japanese and others developed a taste for American beef.

What choices will ultimately be made? At what point will the choices be limited? How well will we conceive of something else? Imagine a dry aquifer in Western Kansas. What was it like one million years ago, two million years....

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