Tag Archives: environment/nature

How the Bird Hat Craze Almost Killed the Dinosaurs

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At the turn of the 19th century in the U.S. and Europe, it became wildly popular — and that’s an understatement — for ladies to wear feathers and whole taxidermied birds on their hats. One ornithologist reported taking two walks in Manhattan in 1886 and counting 700 hats; 525 of which were topped by feathers or birds. Buzzfeed has a collection of vintage hats featuring birds; here are some of the ones that were most stunning to me:

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At the time, not many people thought much of killing the birds. Europeans and their American cousins “didn’t believe they could put a dent in an animal’s population.” Birds seemed to be an “abundant, even inexhaustible” natural resource.  So take they did.  Millions of birds all over the world were harvested for hat makers for years. The Fashioning Feathers blog offers this example:

A single 1892 order of feathers by a London dealer… included 6,000 bird of paradise, 40,000 hummingbird and 360,000 various East Indian bird feathers. In 1902 an auction in London sold 1,608 30 ounce packages of heron… plumes. Each ounce of plume required the use of four herons, therefore each package used the plumes of 120 herons, for a grand total of 192, 960 herons killed.

Ornithologists started to sit up and take notice. One estimated that 67 types of birds — often including all of their sub-species — were at risk for extinction.  Not only were birds killed for their feathers, they were killed when their feathers were at their most resplendent. This meant killing them during mating season, interrupting their reproductive cycle and often leaving baby birds orphaned.

A campaign to end the practice began. In Europe the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds targeted women. They launched a sexist campaign accusing women of supporting the heartless slaughter of birds. Fashioning Feathers includes this image from a pamphlet titled “Feathered Women” in which the president of the Society calls them a “bird-enemy.”

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Virginia Woolf went for the jugular, pointing out that — even though the image shows a woman swooping down to kill a bird — it was largely men who did the dirty work of murder and they were also the ones profiting from the industry.

Ironically, middle class women were at the forefront of the bird preservation movement. They were the rank and file and, thanks in part to their work, in the U.S. the movement led to the formation of the first Audubon societies.  The Massachusetts Audubon Society organized a feather boycott, angering hat makers who called them “extremists” and “sentimentalists.” Politicians worried out loud about the loss of jobs. Missouri Senator James Reed complained:

Why there should be any sympathy or sentiment about a long-legged, long-beaked, long-necked bird that lives in swamps and eats tadpoles.

Ultimately the Massachusetts Audubon Society succeeded in pushing through the first federal-level conservation legislation in the U.S., the Lacey Act of 1900.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What Does “Organic” Look Like?

Flashback Friday.

When I was in grad school studying sociology of agriculture, one thing we talked about was organic agriculture and the difference between “organic” and “sustainable.” Most consumers think of these words interchangeably.  So, when many people think of an organic dairy farm they imagine something along the lines of these images, the top results for an image search of “organic dairy farm”:

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So happy! So content! And, we assume, raised on a small family farm in a way that is humane and environmentally responsible. Those, are, after all, two of the things we expect when something is defined as “sustainable”: it is environmentally benign and humane. We also usually assume that workers would be treated decently as well.

But there is no reason that those elements considered essential to sustainability have to have much to do with organic agriculture. Depending on who is doing the defining, being “organic” can involve very little difference from conventional agriculture. Having an organic dairy mostly just requires that the cows not have antibiotics or homones used on them, eat organic feed, and have access to grass a certain number of days per year. In and of itself, organic certifications don’t guarantee long-term environmental sustainability or overall humane treatment of livestock.

A great illustration of how little the modes of production on organic farms may differ from conventional agriculture is the Vander Eyk dairy. It is an operation in California with over 10,000 dairy cows. Here are some images (found here and here):

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As the caption to the last image makes clear, the Vander Eyk dairy had two herds on the same property, but segregated from one another: the majority of the herd produced conventional milk, while 3,500 cows produced organic milk for sale under the Horizon brand:

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In 2007 the Vander Eyk dairy lost its organic certification for violating the requirement that organic dairy cows spend a certain amount of time on pasture. They had cows on pasture, but they were non-milking heifers, not cows that were being milked at the time. What we see here is that the label “organic” doesn’t guarantee most of the things we associate with the idea of organic or sustainable agriculture (and in cases like Vander Eyk, may not even guarantee the things the label is supposed to cover).

This isn’t just in the dairy industry. As Julie Guthman explains in her book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, many types of organic agriculture include things you might not expect. For instance, organic producers in California joined with other producers to oppose making the short-handled hoe illegal – the bane of agricultural workers everywhere (and most infamously associated with sharecropping in the South in the early 20th century) – because they want workers to do lots of close weeding to make up for not spraying crops with pesticides. So, though we often assume organic farmers would be labor-friendly, in that case they opposed a change that agricultural workers supported.

Many organic crops are grown on farms that are the equivalent of the Vander Eyk dairy; most of the land is in conventional production, but a certain number of acres are used to grow organic versions of the same thing. Often the producer, which may be an individual farmer or a corporation such as Dole, isn’t very committed to organics; if a pest infestation threatens to ruin a crop, they’ll just spray it and then sell it on the conventional market rather than lose it. They may then have to have the land re-certified as “in transition,” meaning it hasn’t been pesticide-free long enough to be declared completely organic, but many consumers don’t pay too much attention to such distinctions.

The Vander Eyk dairy — and lots more examples of large containment-facility operations selling to Horizon and other brands at the Cornucopia Institute’s photo gallery – are interesting examples of how terms like “organic,” “green,” and “eco-friendly” don’t necessarily mean that the item is produced according to any of the standards we often assume they imply.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Hunters and Their Kills: Destroying or Taming Nature?

Flashback Friday.

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Flipping through Safari magazine, something that struck me as odd.  Because the magazine is aimed, primarily, at selling hunting safaris, the vast majority of the pictures were people posing with their kills.

What I noticed was that, in nearly 100 percent of the pictures, the animals were posed so as to look alive: resting or sleeping.  Most often, the animal was on its belly with its legs folded naturally beneath it and, even, its head held or propped up.  The hunters posed behind the animal, often with a hand on it, as if they were simply petting the animal.   Further, there was almost never any evidence of the wound: no holes, no blood (though sometimes the weapon is included in the picture).  It is almost as if the people are at a petting zoo and the animal is blissfully enjoying the human attention.

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Imagine for a minute how challenging this must be to pull off.  If you shoot an animal, it likely falls into any number of positions, many of which make it look like it’s just been shot (legs akimbo, head at an awkward angle, etc).  The hunter and his or her companions must have to wrangle this 500, 1,000, 1,500 pound dead weight into the position in which it appears in the images.

Why do they do it?

I don’t know. But maybe it has something to do with the relationship to nature that hunter culture endorses.  Instead of a destructive, violent relationship to nature that would be represented by picturing animals in their death poses, these pictures suggest a custodial relationship in which humans take care of or chaperone a nature to which they feel tenderly.

That is, they don’t destroy nature with their guns, they tame it.

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Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Who Are Habitats For? Electrified Nature in Zoo Exhibits

What do you see?

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While it hasn’t always been the case, most well-funded zoos today feature pleasant-enough looking habitats for their animals.  They are typically species-appropriate, roomy enough to look less-than-totally miserable, and include trees and shrubs and other such natural features that make them attractive.

How, though, a friend of mine recently asked “does that landscaping stay nice? Why don’t [the animals] eat it, lie down on it, rip it to shreds for fun, or poop all over it?”

Because, she told me, some of it is hot-wired to give them a shock if they touch it. These images are taken from the website Total Habitat, a source of electrified grasses and vines.  

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Laurel Braitman writes about these products in her book, Animal Madness.  When she goes to zoos, she says, she doesn’t “marvel at the gorilla… but instead at the mastery of the exhibit itself.”  She writes:

The more naturalistic the cages, the more depressing they can be because they are that much more deceptive. To the mandrill on the other side of the glass, the realistic foliage that frames his favorite perch doesn’t help him one bit if it has been hot-wired so that he doesn’t destroy it… Some of the new natural looking exhibits may be even worse for their inhabitants than the old cement ones, as the new plants and other features can shrink the animals’ usable space.

The take-home message is that these attractive, naturalistic environments are more for us than they are for the animal.  They teach us what the animal’s natural habitat might look like and they soothe us emotionally, reassuring us that the animal must be living a nice life.

I don’t know the extent to which zoos use electrified grasses and vines, but next time you visit one you might be inspired to look a little more closely.

Photo of elephants from wikimedia commons.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Wealth or Good Parenting? Framing the Privileges of the Rich

“What is it that I want?”

Jane Van Galen asked herself this question after reading a gushing profile of an “island cabin” in The Seattle Times.   It begins: “Lots of folks have lots of reasons for wanting their own piece of land out of town” and quotes one of the new cabin’s owners who, when pregnant, came to realize: “I can’t raise a child just in the city … I wanted woods, salamanders and pileated woodpeckers.”

So, she and her husband “went right out,” bought nine acres on an island, and built this:

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Writing at her site, Education and Class, Van Galen processed her reaction to this article. She added up the costs, figuring that the owners spent close to a million dollars.  “I knew that my unease,” she wrote, “was not just straightforward jealously.”  So, what did she want?

She knew what she did not want:

Narratives in which the wealthy are held up as model parents who upon hearing of the dangers of the modern world, “go right out” to provide acres of weekend woods for their children; narratives that invite us to admire their paint colors and beautiful windows and solid black granite bathtub without asking too many questions about how it is that relatively young parents can ensure that their child has access to acres of his own private salamanders, and especially not to ask too many questions about how all children might have room to grow and thrive...

She wanted, “for once,” to hear wealthy people just admit they’re rich — for whatever reason — instead of framing their decision to build a vacation home as simply what any good parent would do.

“I love having this for my son,” the owner is quoted.  But Van Galen wants to know: What about everyone else’s children?

Cross-posted at Global Policy TV.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Conspicuous Pollution: Rural White Men Rollin’ Coal

Conspicuous consumption refers to the practice of ostentatiously displaying of high status objects.  Think very expensive purses and watches.  In the last few decades, as concern for the environment has become increasingly en vogue, it has become a marker of status to care for the earth.  Accordingly, people now engage in conspicuous conservation, the ostentatious display of objects that mark a person as eco-friendly.

Driving a Prius and putting solar panels on visible roof lines, even if they aren’t the sunniest, are two well-documented examples.  Those “litter removal sponsored by” signs on freeways are an example we’ve featured, as are these shoes that make it appear that the wearer helped clean up the oil spill in the gulf, even though they didn’t.

Well, welcome to the opposite: conspicuous pollution.

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Elizabeth Kulze, writing at Vocativ, explains:

In small towns across America, manly men are customizing their jacked-up diesel trucks to intentionally emit giant plumes of toxic smoke every time they rev their engines. They call it “rollin’ coal”…

It’s a thing. Google it!

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This is not just a handful of guys.  Kulze links to “an entire subculture” on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. “It’s just fun,” one coal roller says. “Just driving and blowing smoke and having a good time.”

It isn’t just fun, though. It’s a way for these men — mostly white, working class, rural men — to send an intrusive and nasty message to people they don’t like. According to this video, that includes Prius drivers, cops, women, tailgaters, and people in vulnerable positions. “City boys” and “liberals” are also targeted:

Kulze reports that it costs anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000 to modify a pickup to do this, which is why the phenomenon resonates with conspicuous consumption and conservation.  It’s an expensive and public way to claim an identity that the owner wants to project.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Do People Expect Hurricanes with Female Names to be Weak?

The fourth hurricane of this year’s season will be named Dolly and that might be a problem.

Dmitriy T.C. sent in a link to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using experiments, the study found that people believe that hurricanes with female names will be less deadly than those with male names.

No, not because hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Because, sexism. People underestimate the power of Victoria vs. Victor, Christina vs. Christopher, Alexandra vs. Alexander.

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Does this translate into a higher death toll due to a failure to evacuate?  That we don’t know. Ed Yong at National Geographic is skeptical The researchers compared the death tolls of hurricanes with female versus male names but were unable to come up with a statistically significant difference.  It may be because of a small sample size; they only started giving male names to hurricanes in 1979.  (The researchers contest Yong’s critique here.)

Hurricane season is upon us and, according to nola.com, this year’s hurricane names will be named Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred.

Maybe, to be safe, we should perhaps re-work this season’s names. I recommend Aggressor, Butch, Crowbar, Death, Evisceration, Fear, Gore, Hannibal, Ice Pick, Juggernaut, Killer, Laceration, Measles, Nerve Damage, Oblivion, Pain, Redrum, Scabies, Torture, Voluminous Agony, and Woe.

Photo: Hurricane Isabel, as seen from space. Credit: Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory , Johnson Space Center. Color-corrected by yours truly.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Sinking of Quicksand

“For many of us, quicksand was once a real fear,” write the producers at Radio Lab:

It held a vise-grip on our imaginations, from childish sandbox games to grown-up anxieties about venturing into unknown lands. But these days, quicksand can’t even scare an 8-year-old.

Interviewing a class of fourth graders, writer Dan Engber discovered that most understood the concept, but didn’t find it particularly worrisome.  “I usually don’t think about it,” said one.  They were more afraid of things like aliens, zombies, ghosts, and dinosaurs.  But they understood that it was something that people used to be afraid of: “My dad told me that when he was little his friends always said ‘look out that could be quicksand!’”

Engber became fascinated with what happened to quicksand.  He found a source of data — compiled by, of all things, quicksand sexual fetishists — that included every movie scene that involved quicksand from the 1900s to the 2000s.  Comparing this number to the total number of movies produced allowed him to show that quicksand had a lifecourse.  It rose in the ’40s, skyrocketed in the ’60s, and then fell out of favor.

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Why?

Engber found a pattern in the data.  In quicksand’s early years, the movie scenes featured quicksand as a very serious threat.  But, after quicksand peaked, it became a  joke.  In the ’80s, quicksand even made it into My Little Pony and Perfect Strangers.  Later, in discussions about plot lines for Lost, the idea of quicksand was dismissed as ridiculous.

I guess it’s fair to say that quicksand “jumped the shark.”

In sociology, we call this the social construction of social problems: the fact that our fears don’t perfectly correlate with the hazards we face.  In this case, media is implicated. What is it making us fear today?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.