Why is a butterfly like a steel rivet?
(Page 5 of 5)
"The easy tricks for increasing food production have gone by the board. Since 1970, we haven't managed to increase food production at all. The peak year for ocean fisheries was 1971. Ever since, there has been a continuous slide in the per capita availability of protein."Skip to next paragraph
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In addition to not increasing food production, agriculturalists' attempts to create "miracle" crops have put the world in a precarious, all-eggs-in-one-basket predicament, says Ehrlich. "The green revolution distributed all over the world high-yeild strains of crops, but in Turkey, for instance, where there used to be 30 to 40 strains of wheat, there is now only one, and it was produced at the Center for the Development of Wheat and Maize, in Mexico. In the United States, the National Academy [of Sciences] was so worried that a few years ago it published a booklet, called the 'Genetic Vulnerability of American Crops.'"
"What concerns population biologists more than anything else," he says, "is the steady erosion of the variety of species and the disappearance of the ecosystem by the nation's massive assault on its fuel resources. Studies show that Sweden uses about half of the per capita energy we do and still generates a per capita gross national product, if that's what you want to generate, larger than ours. We're terribly inefficient."
Ehrlich recently expanded his study of the checkerspots on Jasper Ridge to tropical butterflies, Costa Rican Euptychia,m feeding on grasses ("the most important human food"), and Colorado's blue butterflies, Lycenids,m feeding on legumes ("the second most important food"). By studying the interaction between butterflies and these plants he hopes to answer such questions as: "How can we design our agricultural systems so that we keep the pest suppressed and don't destroy the world with pesticides?" "How do insects become resistant to insecticides?" "How do plants develop natural defense compounds?" As Ehrlich hones his theories and continues to punch holes in time-honored assumptions about plants and insects, he admits that most answers to the "big questions" are still elusive, and will demand decades' more study of the butterflies on the Ridge.
Meanwhile, Ehrlich faces the problem of the extinction of the very species on which he has based his life's work. Of the three original colonies of checkerspots on Jasper Ridge, one is already extinct. Another population of checkerspots which he had studied since 1960 on a grassy knoll in nearby Woodside, Calif., was becoming extinct the very afternoon we spoke, sacrificed to make way for luxury condominiums.
After an afternoon of surveying Jasper Ridge, he hopped into his vintage Dodge, the chrome trim coming unstuck like the brim of his hat, and headed for Woodside to show me the destruction. When we arrived, there was not a single blade of grass left standing on the knoll, not a solitary butterfly in sight. Only the fleet of yellow bulldozers leveling the hill.
"You're witnessing extinction," shouted Ehrlich over the drone of the earthmoving equipment. Visibly distraught, he fought to hold back his rage. "This is what's happening all over the world. Irreplaceable organisms being plowed under in the name of progress with a capital 'P.'"
Ehrlich moves closer to the excavation site to snap a few pictures. A paunchy bulldozen operator shakes his fist at the professor. "It's not his fault," says Ehrlich. "He's a guy who's got to make a living. And the way this system works, what choices does he have? It's not him. It's not individuals doing this. He doesn't know better. He views me as being after his job. I view what he's doing as being after all of our lives."