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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: How is Artificial Intelligence being used for conservation?

-- Katy P., Chevy Chase, MD

You would never think that computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could help humans save nature, but in fact these tools may be key to whether or not we can halt global warming in time let alone solve many other vexing environmental problems. For many underfunded conservation groups, hiring enough staff can become too costly. Humans are also prone to making more sloppy errors and inaccuracies in calculations. AI can serve as a more efficient, reliable and affordable way to capture and analyze information for conservation purposes.

AI tools are extremely precise in the more statistical and analytical elements of conservation, whether it’s detecting complex patterns or making mathematical calculations. For example, interactions between predators and prey can be modeled using game theory with AI tools. Analytics—with the help of machines—can then calculate where predators are most likely to strike and predict where prey will roam.

Certain problems also require real-time results that people cannot produce in a timely manner, such as tracking the locations of illegal wildlife traffickers to protect endangered wildlife. AI tools can produce results effectively without distraction and not experience any performance deterioration due to fatigue.

While some may be concerned that AI requires advanced software engineers to manage, it is actually now more accessible than ever. As long as the AI software to conduct conservation research tasks is set up correctly, researchers believe that anyone can easily utilize it with point-and-click tools.

Of course, AI is not a simple solution. Researchers predict that the training data required for AI machines to generate results can range up to hundreds of thousands of examples and details. Though AI can process data at much higher rates than humans, humans still have to monitor it to ensure accuracy.

For example, AI software processing images or audio recordings can produce false positives that will require trained analysts to remove manually. In spite of this disadvantage, scientists do not believe that the AI program always has to be perfectly accurate. “We just have to know exactly how accurate it is,” says conservation biologist Marc Travers.

Although the future of AI in environmental conservation appears promising, it cannot completely replace humans. The modern climate crisis is truly a crisis of lifestyle, with which mankind has turned nature into its very own factory. To heal that split and mold a harmonic, mutually beneficial balance between nature and mankind, humans need to be in the thick of it. Like Peter Ersts, a software developer at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, says, “We can’t fully replace people yet, and nor should we.”

CONTACTS: AI for Conservation, teamcore.seas.harvard.edu/ai-conservation; AI empowers conservation biology, nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00746-1. 

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that we’ve done such a good job bringing back bald eagles that they’ve become pests now? -- D. Maguire, Winston-Salem, NC

It’s hard to believe the bald eagle was on the brink of extinction in the Lower 48 United States just a half century ago, given how common the majestic birds are all over the country nowadays. While their population rebound is indeed a great source of pride for the environmental movement, some American farmers are wondering if maybe we have too much of a good thing, given a recent uptick of eagles’ preying on livestock.

While bald eagle populations fell drastically in the first half of the 20th century mostly due to hunting, it wasn’t until the 1960s that people started to realize how big a threat the insecticide DDT was to supporting healthy eagle populations. The synthetic chemical was successful in keeping insects down. But when eagles ingested the chemical, it made their egg shells fragile and prone to cracking prematurely, dooming the chick inside to a premature death. Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book Silent Spring highlighted the plight of eagles and other birds as victims of DDT poisoning.

In 1963, there were just 417 known mating pairs of bald eagles within the U.S. In 1972, the federal government banned DDT, and eagle populations started to rebound within a few years, with no looking back. By 2017, researchers believe 70,000 bald eagles inhabited the Lower 48; a 2021 survey estimates that number has now grown to over 300,000 individual bald eagles.

This exponential growth has sparked a call for officials to reconsider protection for the species. The presence of too many bald eagles has been a problem for decades in Alaska, where the birds were able to hold on better than in the Lower 48. In 1917, bald eagles were causing so many issues for the Alaskan fishing industry that the government placed a bounty on the birds. An editorial in 1920 from Douglas Island News in Alaska stated that: “Sentimentally, [the bald eagle] is a beautiful thing, but in life it is a destroyer of food and should be and is killed wherever found.”

Similar situations could start to become more common in the Lower 48, where bald eagles have grown so much in population that they pose a significant threat to farms and pastures where chickens, ducks and other animals roam. Farmers don’t know what to do about it, though, as shooting a bald eagle is a $100,000 fine along with a year of jail time.

One option for farmers is to get an “eagle-depredation” permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if the birds have become “injurious to wildlife, agriculture or other personal property, or human health and safety.” Once granted, non-lethal deterrents like air horns, scarecrows and pyrotechnics can be used to scare them off, though farmers have little recourse if these tactics fail. In the end, we’re just going to have to get used to having so many of these majestic creatures around, reminding us not only of our freedom and national pride but also of what good stewards we can be for nature when we set our hearts and minds to it.

CONTACTS: “History of Bald Eagle Decline, Protection and Recovery,”
fws.gov/midwest/eagle/history/index.html; “When The National Bird Is A Burden,” nytimes.com/2017/01/19/magazine/bald-eagle-national-burden.html.

Dear EarthTalk: What is “slow fashion?” Does it relate to sustainability? – K. Lam, Taos, NM

In the U.S., millions of shoppers pack clothing stores, excited to key into the newest trends while paying low prices. On the other side of the world, low-wage workers—many of them young girls— are crushed under the hammer of “fast fashion” (the mass production of cheap, poor quality, disposable clothing), laboring without safety protections or adequate rights. Fast fashion’s impacts on both the environment and human rights are evident, and slow fashion may just be the only solution to a greener future.

First off, fast fashion revolves around the concept of speeding up production time while minimizing costs, which prompts producers to use the cheapest textiles and toxic textile dyes. Perhaps one of the most popular textiles, polyester is derived from fossil fuels and sheds microfibers that can end up in oceans. Another common material is cotton, which requires extensive quantities of water, pesticides and labor to produce. More important, fast fashion is constantly changing clothing trends—most consumers fall into this ploy and discard garments once they are out of trend. As a result, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 11.3 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills and 3.2 million tons were incinerated—releasing high amounts of greenhouse gases.

While fast fashion exploits labor and the environment to make more and sell more, slow fashion focuses on quality over quantity and respects workers’ rights. A foundational principle of slow fashion is simply to buy less in the first place. Social media and other influencers have lured shoppers with the hottest brands and pressed on the idea of wearing your clothing only once. Slow fashion encourages consumers to dismantle that mindset and learn to value every piece of clothing you own or buy.

Since many people shop for the experience and enjoy the feeling of buying clothes more than the clothing article itself, slow fashion emphasizes choosing high-quality pieces made with sustainable materials. Although more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean more sustainable, higher cost investments do promote that shift in mindset for you to better cherish a garment and wear it more often.

For those who are more financially conservative, second-hand shopping is a great alternative to more expensive sustainable brands. Thrifting is an extremely cheap option for you to shop based on individual desires rather than trends while also gaining that sense of fulfillment from shopping. Other second-hand options like vintage or consignment stores allow shoppers to purchase unique, high-quality items at a fraction of the normal cost.

Slow-fashion also encourages making garments last longer, such as washing and drying clothing at the proper temperatures and buying sewing kits to fix small holes or replace buttons.

While fast-fashion brands have been doing well lately, slow-fashion is also gaining ground. For those who want to practice sustainable shopping, it’s simple to take that step into your environmental journey—join a slow-fashion support group, start your own personal challenge to spend less, and spread awareness within your community and beyond.

CONTACTS: “How to make more ethical & conscious fashion choices,” sloactive.com/slow-fashion-guide; “What’s Wrong with Fast Fashion?” pebblemag.com/magazine/living/whats-wrong-with-fast-fashion.

Dear EarthTalk: How did Toyota go from being the leader in mass-produced greener cars to being a laggard in the sector? -- P. Brooks, Demarest, NJ

It’s hard to believe that Toyota, the automaker behind the hugely successful hybrid-electric Prius, is no longer viewed as a leader in greener cars. According to Danny Magill, an analyst at the London-based think tank InfluenceMap, Toyota has gone from a leading position to an “industry laggard” in clean-car policy as other automakers push ahead with ambitious electric vehicle (EV) plans.

InfluenceMap gives Toyota a “D-” grade—the worst among automakers—saying it exerts policy influence to undermine public climate goals. While companies like Tesla have produced fully electric cars that are all the rage now on the American road, Toyota, focusing on gas-electric hybrids and futuristic fuel cell vehicles, has started to lose market share. Records show that the Prius hybrid reached its peak in 2012 as the world’s third best-selling car line with 247,230 sales; sales declined to ??69,718 in 2019, and 2020 was certainly much worse (given the pandemic’s pull on the economy at large).

Toyota officials have publicly argued that too aggressive a transition to fully electric vehicles could have negative setbacks. Instead, Toyota believes that hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles are more realistic in our transition away from gasoline-powered cars to reduce emissions. “Too little attention is being paid to what happens between today, when 98 percent of the cars and trucks sold are powered at least in part by gasoline, and that fully electrified future,” says Toyota spokesperson Eric Booth.

Toyota’s renewed focus on hybrid-electric vehicles may be attributable their forward-looking hydrogen-fueled automobiles having been a bust as to marketplace success. These zero-emission cars contain hydrogen tanks and fuel cells that can convert hydrogen into electricity, unlike other electric vehicles that are battery-powered. Toyota’s hydrogen models can travel hundreds of miles on a tank, and emit only water vapor. But the expense of hydrogen fuel and the lack of refueling infrastructure has kept the technology from going mainstream. Given these setbacks, Toyota has advocated for their hybrid technology as a logical transition to greener transportation when hydrogen becomes more accessible.

Over the past few years, the company has also sued the Mexican government in an attempt to block fuel efficiency standards there. Toyota has also supported the former Trump administration’s court battle with California over revamping Clean Air Act emissions standards. Also, Toyota is rumored to be part of a collaborative lobbying effort with the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Automobile Innovation to fight new regulations calling for zero-emissions vehicles. Moreover, Toyota’s Political Action Committee was the top donor to Republicans in Congress who opposed the results of the 2020 presidential election.

While Toyota continues its opposition to true EVs, major markets like China have begun an aggressive shift towards EV production and can ultimately force the company’s hand. Environmentalists and economists agree that in order for Toyota to increase its profit margins and remain viable into the future, it needs to rethink its vision—and prepare for a battery-electric future.

CONTACTS: Toyota lobbies for half measures in Washington, electrive.com/2021/07/28/toyota-lobbies-for-half-measures-in-washington/; Toyota Led on Clean Cars. Now Critics Say It Works to Delay Them, nytimes.com/2021/07/25/climate/toyota-electric-hydrogen.html.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org

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