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Starting S216: Environmental Science

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My S216: Environmental Science course materials have arrived! Cue much rejoicing, general study planning, and a little list-making.

A brief aside on the topic of world maps:

Among the six books and the DVD pack was also a wall map of the Earth's surface. It's the Mercator projection, which has always bothered me. People's sense of geography is not based upon fact, but upon the Mercator map, and has been ever since it was first produced in 1569.

mercator-map.jpg
What we think the world looks like...

Representing a spherical object on a flat surface is always going to present problems, but the Mercator projection is not even close to being area accurate... Africa is frickin' huge. MASSIVE. As is South America. The main problem with this map is that the further the land mass is from the equator, the more its size is distorted. Thus, Greenland becomes a similar size to Africa.

However, in 1855, a clergyman named James Gall produced his own version of a map of the world, known as the Gall-Peters Projection. This has its drawbacks, too, but the areas represented are much more accurate. See - the northern hemisphere is puny in terms of landmass size compared to the south:

peters-projection.jpg
How the world really looks...

Back to the books:

Anyway. That's enough of maps (although I LOVE maps - if anyone wants to buy me antique maps, feel free).

The first block of S216 is a virtual field trip to the Teign Valley in Devon, and is DVD based. Then we're on to the books, which sound very interesting indeed...

Book 2: Air and Earth.

Part One - Air: We'll be looking at the atmosphere. It's cold outside, and there is an atmosphere. I'm all alone, more or less. Then there's the weather, and weather observations. Followed by the ins and outs of the atmosphere, and the global weather machine including ocean circulation and that pesky El Niño.

Part Two - Earth: Comprising rocks and minerals; igneous rocks; metamorphic rocks; fragmentary rocks; and the weathering of rocks and minerals. Then there's an introduction to soil - what it is; soil ecosystems; and soil processes and properties in the environment. I've got to be honest; this section doesn't sound so interesting...

Book 3: Water and Life. This is quite an alarmingly thick book.

Part One - Water: All types of water. What happens to rain? Ground water; a journey down a river; and the hydrological cycle. I like water. I'm reading a biography of water at the moment, and it's bloody fascinating. Water is strange stuff; it doesn't obey the usual laws of liquids. There is nothing as sweet as water when you're really, really thirsty.

Part Two - Life: Vegetation patters; resources to support life; and ecological dynamics. This is one of my areas of interest because I am a tree-hugging hippy who wants to save the world, one turtle at a time.

Book 4: Landforms and Cycles. This is a more reassuringly thin book.

Part One - Landforms: A bit of physical geography, which I loved at school, and which has stayed with me throughout adulthood. The way the Earth's roots works fascinates me. So we'll start with plate tectonics and an introduction to landforms, looking at lithology, and how water shapes the landscape inland and at the coasts. Then we look at ice, and wind, and finally landforms in space and time.

Book 5:

  • Extreme weather
  • Atmospheric chemistry and pollution
  • Wetlands and the carbon cycle
  • Cryosphere

Book 6:

  • Oceans and climate (this one, I'm looking forward to)
  • Water quality
  • Eutrophication
  • Acid rain

Book 7:

  • Grasslands
  • Tropical forests
  • Biological conservation

Books 5, 6 and 7 are going to interest me particularly. This is a beast of a module, and I'm under no illusions as to how much work I'm going to need to put in. Structuring my life is going to be incredibly important over the next few months, so that I have time to spend with my husband, my friends and my family - not to mention the me-time that will be spent doing yoga and pole dancing.

But last year was fiercely busy, and I enjoyed it immensely. So I'm not fazed; and in fact, I can't wait. Bring on 2012. I'm ready for you.

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Whose right to life?

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We in S104 have all been assigned a primate species to research. We are then to have a discussion and decide which of the primate species we would prioritise for conservation, and why.

The species are: Pongo abelii (the Sumatran orangutan); Colobus angolensis (the Angola colobus); Leontopithecus rosalia (the golden lion tamarin); Eulemur coronatus (the crowned lemur); and Tarsius dentatus (Dian's tarsier).

I'm not sure yet which species I would prioritise for conservation, but the discussion on the tutor group forum has raised some interesting points - scientific and philosophical.

When discussing the orangutan, in particular, mention was made of its conflict with humans. The Sumatran orangutan is classed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List with a decreasing population, and little hope for improvement at present. The major threats to the species are legal and illegal logging; a new road which, if approved, will further fragment the sparse populations; and competition with humans for resources.

One student said that the human populations have a right to live there, raise families and make money. Perhaps. "Human rights" are much talked about, and for the most part, our laws and customs are necessary and enshrined in our basic codes of behaviour for good reason.

However, human rights are a human construct: what marks us out as so special? It is difficult to view the world from a non-human-centred viewpoint, but sometimes this is worth trying. When looked at objectively and in a detached manner, it is not so simple.

Why should humanity have more "right" to resources than any other species? What about other species' "right" to existence?

It has been suggested that other species, competing with us for resources, have a case to answer as to their right to survival. "Does it really matter if tigers survive?" asked a devil's advocate? I would argue that, yes, it does matter. And not just because tigers are beautiful, majestic creatures; but because their disappearance may have far-reaching consequences for humanity. And, in any case, who are we to decide?

If we are competing in so many areas for limited resources, that does rather suggest that the problem lies within human populations. Our world is vastly over-populated - we are not just fighting other species for survival, we are fighting each other. Only by stabilising our own population growth can we begin to make any inroads into stabilising the world's ecosystems.

Education is essential: both in the West and in the developing world. If we do not control our own populations, nature has a tendency to redress the balance. By studying animal populations, we can make predictions as to what may happen in our own populations: overcrowding breeds disease; overuse of antibiotics is producing many new strains of resistant bacteria; competition for resources starts wars.

Extinction, like death, is part of life and nature; there's no denial there. Some species reach an evolutionary dead end. Some may argue that the mass extinctions we are facing are "natural"; I would disagree. Humanity is consuming resources so quickly and on such an unprecedented scale, that the world is shuddering in the face of too many changes. We are not just threatening other species - we are threatening ourselves. Perhaps this would not be such a bad thing for the planet; but people are (can be) amazing, wonderful creatures and we owe ourselves so much more.

The answer is not simple, and like almost everything else in life, the debate is not black and white. If conservation is to work - and it is a worthwhile task! - it will need to involve everyone: from governments, conservation groups and concerned individuals to the indigenous human populations themselves. Change has to come from within, and education is key here.

If we can't find a way to protect and preserve the creatures we share this world with, what hope is there for humanity to improve, grow and evolve?

If it were up to me, resources would be poured into the conservation of those endangered species that have been directly threatened by anthropogenic activity alone. We have no idea what effect mass extinctions may have on the planet, on human health and society. Even if we cannot appeal to those who care nothing for wildlife and conservation, surely there is an argument to be made regarding the potential benefits of species we are losing?

And leaving aside all that, our world is incredibly rich and beautiful. Take a look around, learn a little more about the creatures that we are on the brink of losing. That in itself is a good enough reason for conservation. And it's worth some measure of sacrifice.

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