Convinced, But Not Concerned

[May 28, 2010]

A friend of mine visited her brother in Whitefish, Montana last week and brought back the Spring issue of the local lifestyle magazine, Flathead Living, named for Flathead Lake–the largest natural lake in the Western U.S. and northwest Montana’s 200 square mile recreational playground (“Freedom at 48-degrees North”).

Most of the advertisers in the glossy quarterly are real estate brokers, home builders and interior designers. There’s a feature article about Glacier National Park’s Centennial celebration this year, and amidst profiles of entrepreneurs, artists and resorts is a serious article about the mountain pine beetle that is ravaging Western pine forests at high elevations. It’s in the Home & Gardens section and is titled: “Forest Battle Lands in Backyards.”

The point of view of the author is curiously circumscribed in the pull-quote beneath the title: “There is nothing new about bark beetle attacks in the Rocky Mountains. The beetles and trees have co-evolved for thousands of years.” [1]

Nothing new? Nature going about its business as usual?

A surprising statement, given that the article follows up with the fact that roughly nine million acres of white bark pines trees in Montana and Colorado have been affected by the beetle since 1999, and 40 million acres have been lost in British Columbia. The pine bark beetles used to have an active life of only 2 to 3 weeks in July.  Now, in what is called a “life cycle shift”, warmer temperatures have them hatching out in May, and attacking trees well into October in some places. [2]

Certainly the beetles and the trees, as in all ecosystems, have co-evolved over the long run. But neither, stretching back to the receding ice sheet, has faced the degree of environmental dis-location now taking place. And, in fact, the article goes on to say: “While experts agree that the battle is impossible to win at the forestry level, property owners with standing trees still stand a fighting chance.”

The author of the article is Don Fowler, who writes that he “has spent the last several years battling the mountain pine beetle epidemic in British Colombia.”
There’s that war metaphor again. And yet, Don’s weapon of choice—and his recommendation to homeowners who find their backyards under attack—is a non-toxic, synthetic version of a natural pheromone named Verbenone which tricks pine beetles and sends them foraging elsewhere (i.e., somebody else’s trees?). [3]

Most telling, perhaps, is Mr. Fowler’s reference to what is causing the pine beetle outbreak: “Food supply, climate change and forest management decisions all have an influence.” Climate change kind of gets shuffled over in that series, doesn’t it? Cause and effect are muddled. And so this informative article, addressed to homeowners, second-home-owners and would-be homeowners, misses its opportunity to say something stronger about climate change.

Look Over Yonder

Yet it does show us something stronger. The article includes some striking color photos. One is a close view of a tree with its bark pulled away to show the beetles tunneling within. A second offers the wide view: a mountain & valley panorama dominated by tinder-brown, no longer evergreen—trees.

There has been a tremendous amount written at this point about the psychology of communicating climate change. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains are magnificent at responding to threats we can see (our evolutionary training), but much less so for threats we must foresee. Climate change has been pegged as one of those “distant, sometime in the future” threats —except when, as so many in the Western states can plainly see, the evidence is right over there. Or right here in my back yard.

Robert Gifford, psychology professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada and a member of the American Psychological Association task force studying the connection between psychology and climate change, says that people in BC (who see a lot of brown trees) are indeed more convinced about climate change—but they are not necessarily more concerned. [4]

Full Frontal?

Another example of this kind of counter-intuitive disconnect was brought home to me last week by a naturalist in my town of Guilford, Connecticut. Kathleen Kudlinski writes “The Naturalist” column for the Sunday edition of the New Haven Register.

Her piece last Sunday (May 23) featured, as it always does, a good-sized illustration, a page from her sketchbook—Kathleen is a talented artist. We see Eastern Bluebirds and Robins (“thrushes all”)—moms and their babies (“speckly and loved”). Then Kathleen tells us that this year, in this part of New England “our bluebirds could nest extra early because they simply didn’t leave last winter. These migratory birds didn’t migrate.” As she says: “a strange Spring.”

“These are facts”, she writes, “not some airy-fairy climate change theory. I saw this evidence, and you did too, if you were looking.”

I don’t know Kathleen personally, but I was so struck with the directness of her column, that I sent her an email, thanking her for it. She wrote right back, and here is what she said:

“Too often people are so turned off by the whole topic of global climate change (or anything smacking of raw environmentalism) that they stop reading if I face the issue directly. For those readers, I pussy-foot around, starting with yummy natural history and backing into deeper ecological principles. But this week I had to do a full frontal (hiding behind a baby robin) and hope for the best.”

It’s true: there is an avoidance at play, a reluctance to bring up climate change at every opportunity. Repetition has a numbing effect. Sometimes you have to hold off and plan your best shot.

So, was Dan Fowler’s article for his Montana readers a “missed opportunity”?
Or is he so well-attuned to his audience that he knows just when and how much to push it? (He did include those pictures, after all). Is there a forum where he’d be willing to go “full frontal” and connect the dots between these early Springs in the Rockies and destructive pine beetle life cycles?

I think I’ll send him this post and ask him what he thinks.


[1] Flathead Living Magazine, Spring 2010, p. 64 “Forest Battle Lands in Backyards”

[2] “What’s Killing the Great Forests of the American West?”, Jim Robbins.
Yale Environment 360 website, March 15, 2010 (accessed 5/28/10). Robbins is a journalist based in Helena, Montana.

[3] The “About the Author” note accompanying the article identifies Don as “forestry consultant for Contech Enterprises” who “travels extensively teaching integrated pest management techniques.”

[4] Public radio broadcast “The Psychology Around Climate Change.”
Aired April 19, 2010 on WHYY- Philadelphia, “Voices in the Family” hosted by Dan Gottlieb.


About John Wackman

A writer since I learned to hold a pencil (no, not like that...hold it like this!). Long-time writer/producer for television, now organizer of Repairs Cafes in the Hudson Valley (13 & counting!) -- Program Manager of Solarize Hudson Valley, non-profit, state supported, community sponsored renewable energy program. We're all re-inventing ourselves. It's a sci-fi world, isn't it?
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1 Response to Convinced, But Not Concerned

  1. John Wackman says:

    My friend Bud Longo in Williamsburg VA sent this email:
    I enjoyed reading your blog about pine beetles in Montana. It is a real travesty that I saw first hand when I visited my dad last summer. I read that work being done on using sound waves (KISS, Tower of Power, Justin Bieber?) to aggravate and interrupt the mating cycle is actually meeting with some success. So, obviously no Barry White. At any rate, next time you are out hiking and you hear “I wanna take you higher” wafting through the pines you will know why.

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