Life with Lepidoptera

Peter Marren. Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

This was subtitled “Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies,” when it was first published in the UK in 2014. The Chicago edition has a preface for American readers, making some comparisons between the American and European faunas. He briefly mentions the great American collectors of the nineteenth century (see my post from February 2015) and introduces his favorite butterfly lover, Vladimir Nabokov, to whom he will return  throughout.

Marren begins with personal recollection and reflection on his early days as a butterfly collector: the joys of pursuit and capture, the thrill of discovering a new species to add to his collection and the less easily expressed delight of simply being alive and out in a world inhabited by beautiful, delicate beings.

In discussing this aesthetic joy and recounting the history of the long fascination that butterflies have exerted on the minds of human beings, Marren does a great job of presenting the collectors, artists and writers who left behind a record of their pursuits. Among those he most admires are the Rothschilds, who have probably done more for entomology than any of the other great families of England. Nine different members are listed in his index. His account of the lives and works of the many notable painters and engravers of butterflies, from the late Renaissance to the 21st century, reminds us of the enormous labor involved and the many disappointments and financial failures that dogged their efforts. It is very helpful to have a computer or tablet handy while reading this chapter, so you can search out examples of work by Moses Harris (see example above) Henry Noel Humphries, F.W. Frohawk, Richard Lewington and David Measures. The book itself has only monochrome illustrations of butterflies in the chapter headings.

I was rather less taken by Marren’s attempt to write a literary, cultural and psychological history of the passion for butterflies. The familiar identification of the soul (psyche) with a butterfly and the various ways butterflies appear in poetry do not seem to add up to much in terms of understanding human responses to the natural world. Nor do his forays into mythology make compelling reading for me. His accounts of the people who established our understanding of the lives of butterflies are much more interesting. The tribulations of women who shared the passion are especially telling: from Lady Glanville whose interest in butterflies was grounds for suspecting her sanity and thus contesting her will, to her successors in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century, who contributed much to entomology, despite a “men only” attitude among most organizations and institutions.

One of the best features of this book is Marren’s fascination with the names that people have given to butterflies over the centuries and in different parts of the world. Here, I think his cultural reflections are on firmer ground. Besides, the names are just amazing and fun to wonder about. Why is a beautiful flying insect called a red admiral or a golden hog? He also comments on how names and naming conventions have changed over the centuries. Luckily, we have the Linnean system to impose a more or less uniform system so serious students can keep things straight.

Marren also does a fine job of describing the butterflies themselves and their habitats all across England and Scotland. He talks about the plants they rely on and the plant communities they inhabit, with much attention to how changing ecology, driven by modernizing agriculture and the rise of suburbs, have affected species, some for the better, but more for the worse. His 12th chapter on butterfly monitoring and preservation efforts is one of the best reflections on the dilemmas of trying to maintain and protect natural habitats that I have read in a popular work.

Marren chronicles the decline of butterfly collecting as a hobby and even as a scientific endeavor in Great Britain. More and more areas prohibit collecting, and more and more of the public is openly hostile to the idea of killing and preserving butterflies. Marren’s own collection from his youth in the 1950’s and 60’s was accepted by the Natural History Museum, because well-documented specimens from the latter part of the 20th century are scarce and valuable records of the state of the fauna, which help scientists today understand how things have changed. The anti-collecting bias of many current environmentalists and natural history enthusiasts is understandable, given the decline of so many species, but largely misguided, at least if they care as they claim to, about protecting these natural wonders. We need more solid documentation, not less, for butterfly populations, and although photographs and even unvouchered reports can be helpful, serious conservation needs specimens to verify what it is that is there and to enable us to trace the shifting makeup of populations. As Marren makes clear in his chapter on efforts to save England’s butterflies, simply trying to freeze things in place is a sure route to failure. Too many organizations and agencies, at least here in my home state, still seem to think that way, though.



Climate Change, Equity and Security

“Equity and Greenhouse Gas Responsibility” by Paul Baer et al. ( )

“Energy and Equity” by Ivan Illich ( )

David Lempert and Hue Nguyen, “The global prisoners’ dilemma of unsustainability: why sustainable development cannot be achieved without resource security and eliminating the legacies of colonialism” Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 7(1): 16-30 (2011) ( )

I am a teacher of both natural sciences and liberal arts by training and experience. In that spirit, I offer some thoughts on climate change, energy and equity.

Baer et al. provide a succinct statement of the problem of preventing climate change through greenhouse gas regulation and conclude that any future international agreement must be based on principles of equity, specifically, “equal rights to common resources” and “polluter pays.”

They analyze a simplified version of the problem, as follows: They assume that to avoid unacceptable climate extremes it is necessary to keep global CO2 levels from exceeding twice the preindustrial levels; to do this it is required to hold annual greenhouse gas emissions to the equivalent of 0.3 T/capita, assuming a stable world population of 9 billion by about 2050. Current emissions they estimate to be about 1 T/capita, ranging from 5 T in a few developed countries to less than 0.1 T in some poor developing nations. The problem is how to allocate allowable emissions under a cap and trade or similar global arrangement. The Kyoto Protocol, they argue, is flawed because nation’s caps are based on past emission levels. This institutionalizes unequal access to common resources and allows some people to impose environmental damages on others, without penalty. Another way to look at this is that under such a scheme some people have greater access than others to a common resource, the atmosphere, and pay nothing for the priviledge.

The solution, they offer is a global per capita limit, which would be set at a value above the ultimate limit and then gradually lowered, until the required value [in their example, about 0.3 T/capita] is achieved. Those above the current limit would have to purchase the unused emissions allowances of those below the limit. Such an equitable scheme, based on equal access and “polluter pays,” is the only basis for achieving a worldwide agreement. They cite a number of treaties and national laws that operate on these principles. They acknowledge that the details of such a scheme and the would require much negotiation, and that considerations such as income, ability to pay and historic and current energy needs would be used to adjust targets and mechanisms for enforcing the limit.

Such a system is possible, with a great deal of administration and monitoring. It implies a fairly large transfer of wealth from developed to developing countries to pay for the emissions rights until zero-net-carbon energy sources can be deployed.

Baer et al. argue that ending fossil energy dependence globally is unlikely be negotiated except on equitable principles, but because their focus is on the environmental, and not the social and political effects of energy consumption, they leave unanswered a critical question: will the developed and developing nations opt for continued dependence on massive inputs of energy, only of “sustainable” character, or will they opt for minimal energy dependence and expanded (or restored) political freedom and equity?

In Energy and Equity, from 1973, Ivan Illich provides a starting point for a discussion of what sort of technology is compatible with living well, meaning, I think, living sustainably, in freedom and equality. I use this text in my courses, Environmental Issues and Green Politics, to lead students to reflect on what seems at first to be a technical environmental problem, but which turns out to raise much more fundamental questions. Illich observes that beyond a critical (and very low) threshold, continued expansion of energy dependence in societies leads to growing inequity and the loss of access to basic resources and freedom for the less favored.

Illich argues that large doses of energy, applied to problems like getting around, have counter-productive results. Industrial solutions, rather than serving as means to achieve ends we value, become a burden.

He begins the opening section:

The advocates of an energy crisis believe in… a peculiar vision of man. According to this notion, man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves which he must painfully learn to master. If he does not employ prisoners, then he needs machines to do most of his work. According to this doctrine, the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command.

and continues:

This belief is… threatened by the obvious inequity, harriedness, and impotence that appear everywhere once the voracious hordes of energy slaves outnumber people by a certain proportion. The energy crisis focuses concern on the scarcity of fodder for these slaves. I prefer to ask whether free men need them.

His analysis takes humans’ ability to walk as a starting point and shows that new modes of travel have not improved on it by any net increase in range, economy of time or access for the disabled. Instead, he argues, once the power of the new modes crossed a threshold, they began to restrict, rather than enhance, mobility for all but a fortunate few. Part of the downside of this “Industrialization of traffic” is loss of freedom, as the new modes create barriers that make walking and other modes of self-powered transit difficult.

Another drawback is loss of time: powerful modes of travel impose a monopoly that requires most people to devote more time to transit and to earning the means to purchase it. He claims that in the early 1970’s the average American spent 1600 hours of total time in transit related activity, direct and indirect, while traveling an average of just 7500 miles, for a net speed of 5 mph, barely faster than a walk and much slower than a bicycle.

The “habitual passenger” feels frustration, but attributes it to lack of the latest technology, hoping always for better service, not seeing that his dependence on being served is the source of his frustration.

Greater speed demands more and more space for airports, freeways, high-speed rail, etc. More human effort and money must be spent on controlling the system, and as we saw in Baer et al. controlling the environmental effects. Escalating costs make it impossible that everyone can go the same speed as CEO’s.

Illich identifies the critical threshold of speed, beyond which industrialization of traffic imposes an ever increasing burden of lost time, lost freedom and lost equality on the society, as fifteen miles or twenty-four kilometers per hour. The source of this limit is simply the maximum speed that normal human muscle power, aided by technology, can maintain. In other words, the speed of a healthy cyclist on a good bicycle.

The bicycle symbolizes the choice between the “Radical monopoly” of industrialized transport, which he connects to other radical monopolies in areas such as education and medicine, and the autonomous mobility which self-powered transit offers, provided it is protected by a speed limit.

The essay concludes by suggesting that if motorized transport would keep within the threshold of speed (his actual number here is 25 mph/40 kph) it could supplement human-powered mobility, giving freedom to the disabled and carrying burdens too big for individuals to bear. He is not a Luddite. He is a radical, political critic, but not an enemy of technology as such.

How do citizens of a highly developed nation, respond to this? My students, exhibiting what Illich calls speed-stunned imagination, declare that such a limit is ridiculous and deny that their cars deprive them of lifetime. They maintain that we need better technology, so we can all move faster to more places.

Of course, there are doubts. These students see how roads, railways, parking lots and suburbs restrict them from walking and cycling. They experience the loss of time from being stuck in traffic, having a car break down or waiting for a bus. They are acutely aware of the struggle to pay for the services required by industrialized society: tuition, cars, insurance, traffic tickets, etc. They know they may someday have to pay, directly or indirectly, for the environmental damage. They propose many ingenious solutions, but all require increased social control over our lives.

Yet almost nobody at my college is more than a day’s ride away from home, at a speed of 40, or even 25 kilometers per hour. All weather, human-powered transit is certainly possible, but in New Jersey it is dangerous to take long trips under human power in current traffic conditions. There is a wonderful book about human-powered travel in this “Garden State” as New Jersey is known, Snowshoeing Through Sewers, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press, 1994) which demonstrates this.

As for Illich’s larger claims, my students believe that radical monopolies can arise from the growth of technology, but they take a fatalistic attitude. The possibility of political action to free themselves does not seem real to them. The only solutions they can think of are technical or economic. Like my students, the climate negotiators from the major polluting nations avoid even the easier questions about energy and equity posed by Baer et al. Most of the world’s political, social and scientific leaders seem to avoid them, too. I believe they don’t see that they are the “habitual passengers” Illich describes. Until the citizens of the developed and developing countries can recognize their growing dependence on energy is curtailing freedom and creating greater inequality, it is unlikely that the gridlock over global warming can be broken.

There is a further complexity here, which is the relationship between security and the political choices about resource consumption and sustainability that are open to developed and developing countries. I quote here from what I think is a very important contribution on this topic, David Lempert & Hue Nguyen:

Rather than considering the destruction of the environment as a cause of war over dwindling resources, there may actually be a more complex relationship—a vicious cycle—in which the need to secure resources may actually be driving their overexploitation as a means to increase economic and military strength. This iterative process further drives competition over dwindling and disappearing resources. Moreover, this positive feedback loop, supported by ideologies and institutional structures that are the legacy of colonialism throughout the world, may itself be a Nash equilibrium that is now impossible to change because it is self-reinforcing through “rational” choices by governments and cultural groups. This outcome may also explain the “rational choice” of countries to begin to prepare for climate wars and further resource competition rather than to agree to the very frameworks for sustainability of the planet that are, ironically, also the key to maintaining globalization. In other words, the current approach to globalism does appear to be promoting its own breakdown because of a built-in contradiction in the approach to sustainable development.

I take this to mean that the militarized “security” approach to preserving our environment contains the seeds of its own destruction. Unless we can find means other than military force to ensure the common security of the resources that we all need to survive, we simply risk ever more antagonistic interactions, of the kind that now plague the Middle East and parts of Africa. Small countries are led to play the game because of the fear, too often realized, that stronger powers, and especially, superpowers, will simply impose their will by threat or violence (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) It also encourages destructive insurgencies, leading ultimately to collapse of states (Somalia, Libya, Syria, Lebanon) Currently, the global response relies on shifting coalitions of powers that still operate much as the colonial powers of the 19th century did, being accountable only to themselves. Without structures of genuine equity, supported by collective guarantees and a system of settling disputes that doesn’t rely primarily on crippling sanctions, threats and force, we will not see much progress towards protecting our earth’s life-support systems.

The current climate talks are a worthy effort to build structures of cooperation; at the same time, the Catholic Church, via a recent Papal encyclical, has urged its communicants to reflect on the issue of the impact of climate change on those least able to protect themselves, as well as our overall relationship to the planet. There has been no discussion of Illich’s views in what I have read about the encyclical, but a quick search of the Internet finds a number of pieces that mention both. There are other positive signs that people are beginning to think about the limitations of a high-energy lifestyle. One is the popularity of car-free days in urban centers. As Illich put it:

Liberation from affluence begins on the traffic islands where the rich run into one another. The well-sped are tossed from one island to the next and are offered but the company of fellow passengers en route to somewhere else. This solitude of plenty would begin to break down as the traffic islands gradually expanded and people began to recover their native power to move around the place where they lived. Thus, the impoverished environment of the traffic island could embody the beginnings of social reconstruction, and the people who now call themselves rich would break with bondage to overefficient transport on the day they came to treasure the horizon of their traffic islands, now fully grown, and to dread frequent shipments from their homes.

Liberation from dependence starts at the other end. It breaks the constraints of village and valley and leads beyond the boredom of narrow horizons and the stifling oppression of a world closed in on itself. To expand life beyond the radius of tradition without scattering it to the winds of acceleration is a goal that any poor country could achieve within a few years, but it is a goal that will be reached only by those who reject the offer of unchecked industrial development made in the name of an ideology of indefinite energy consumption.

I hope that we will begin to hear more discussion starting from ideas like the ones expressed in these articles.