I just spent a few days at the fair helping out with 4H activities. This gave me time to catch up on my periodicals.

National Geographic had a special edition on Africa. There I was, sitting in the bunny barn, surrounded by clean, well-fed children, reading about African street children who sniff glue and gasoline if they can afford it or jenkem (a plastic bag of fermented human sewage) if they can’t.

The bush meat trade is thriving, most of it being sold to people in big cities where it has high status, like a good wine does here.

shotgun shellsYet another page depicted dozens of game-park rangers being trained to use assault rifles.

Then there was the photo of two corpulent members of the Catholic hierarchy, each with a large crucifix around his neck, one talking on a cell phone, the other eating popcorn. They were being driven about on a mission to verify that the oil companies were keeping their end of the bargain to provide compensation to local villagers for the right to drill. How ironic that two rotund friars, adamantly opposed to contraception and abortion, were riding around in air-conditioned luxury on a continent racked by famine and the highest birth rates in the world.

Peter Brown, editor in chief of Natural History, bashed our president for supporting the teaching of intelligent design in our schools. His decision will probably cost him some subscriptions, but it was heartening to see profit being risked to stem the fundamentalists’ attempts to bring religion into public science classes. If anything, it will be science, not fundamentalist dogma, that helps us through this bottleneck.

As discussed by Chris earlier, Scientific American had a special issue titled, “Crossroads for Planet Earth.” Some comments by Oliver Sachs caught my attention.

… more than five billion of the world’s 6.5 billion people can reliably meet their basic living needs and thus can be said to have escaped from the precarious conditions that once governed everyday life.

For the first time in history, global economic prosperity, brought on by continuing scientific and technological progress and the self-reinforcing accumulation of wealth, has placed the world within reach of eliminating extreme poverty altogether. This prospect will seem fanciful to some, but the dramatic economic progress made by China, India and other low-income parts of Asia over the past 25 years demonstrates that it is realistic. Moreover, the predicted stabilization of the world’s population toward the middle of this century will help by easing pressures on Earth’s climate, ecosystems and natural resources — pressures that might otherwise undo economic gains.

Good news, but he overlooks a small detail. Our instinctive urge to seek higher status does not satiate itself. People do not simply “escape poverty” and then quit trying to obtain more wealth. That’s why I have chosen to concentrate on conservation. It is the only way we are going to protect what is left of our planet’s biodiversity. When all of those Chinese ex-peasants can afford to build vacation homes on waterfront property, they won’t be able to build them on lakes owned by conservation NGOs. When they decide to line their home’s floors with tropical hardwoods, they will have to get their wood from tree farms, not intact ecosystems owned by conservation NGOs. This is a critical window for conservation. It can’t be done later. There will be nothing left to preserve.