Category Archives: population

World more black than white?

On this holiday in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., pause for a moment to think about the world’s population by race. Things are not black and white.

The majority is Asian, with nearly two-thirds of the world’s 7+ billion people living in the region shared by India and China.

As the world’s second most populated continent, Africa has more than 1 billion people, which is larger than North and South America combined. Combine Europe and North America, based on these Wikipedia numbers, and it reaches 1.4 billion. But it’s unclear if the world is more “white” than “black.”

Here’s a map that tries to visualize nations by their population instead of their geography alone:


This map shows how the world’s population is distributed (note how much Canada and Australia shrink).

If the world’s most populated continents could be represented by a classroom of about 25 students, you would expect to see this approximation: 15 students from Asia, 5 from Europe and North America, 4 from Africa, and 1 from South America.

This worldview may be disturbing to people who want to think they live in the center of the universe (I’m talking to you, New Yorkers). It may be disturbing to those who think their survival depends on being a part of the majority. Yes, there is a certain truth behind the saying of “safety in numbers.”

But you are a minority. Whether by race, or religion, or sexual orientation, or economic status, you are a minority. In one way or another, everyone falls into minority status. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Diversity is reality.

you are a minority. 

Does that scare you? Does than make you unsafe or weak? That is for you to decide. MLK Jr. says it could make you better.


Today, you could make the world better. But first, it may require you to accept the fact that you, yes you, are a minority.


Florida Reef Tract gets the “special” treatment

The Sunshine State’s many exceptional natural features have made it a tourism mecca and standout in the oeuvre of postcards, but promoters may want to bury the latest description of its coral reefs. The most comprehensive report on the state of Caribbean coral reefs calls Florida’s reefs “a special case”– and not in the good way.

A promotional cartoon paints a rosy image of the world's first underwater park.

A promotional cartoon paints a rosy image of the world’s first underwater park. (

“Florida has seen a sharp decline in its coral reef in the past 40 years,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of Global Marine and Polar Programme at the IUCN, the world’s authority on extinction and publisher of the report on Caribbean reefs. “Improved management, particularly of reef fish and regulation of coastal use can help reverse this trend,” he says.

Decadal decline applies to most Caribbean reefs, but the report singles out the Florida Reef for its harshest assessment.

Florida represents the “worst-case scenario” where “intensity of human use and environmental impacts greatly exceeds that of any other region in the wider Caribbean, if not the world,” states the IUCN report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. The report analyzed 35,000 reef surveys to detect patterns across the region. The report names Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in addition to Florida, as places lacking healthy corals.

Six million people are sandwiched in between the Everglades and the Florida Reef (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

In southern Florida, six million people are sandwiched in between the Everglades and the Florida Reef, in red. (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

One trend emphasized in the report is that positive human intervention can control negative impacts. “The Gulf of Mexico has some of the worst and some of the best reefs in the Caribbean. The key determining factor for this is the way the reefs have been managed,” says Lundin.

Florida’s reefs have been managed very poorly, the report contends, and “inadequate governance and regulations have resulted in the critical endangerment of an entire coral reef ecosystem.”

Endangered Reefs, Made of Coral

Only in recent years have entire ecosystems been considered candidates for mass extinction. According to the IUCN, the wider Caribbean region of reefs qualifies as “endangered” under its new criteria for ecosystems.

In 2006, two major Caribbean corals were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2009, Florida passed the Coral Reef Protection Act, and it establishes fines for boat strikes that damage coral.

The threatened staghorn and elkhorn species are stony corals that have constructed much of the Florida Reef. The theory of reef extinction being played out in Florida and elsewhere is that if reef-building corals die out, the system dies with it. Coral reef ecosystems host the greatest concentration of species in the ocean.

In a Name

The Florida Reef contains 455 square miles of reef area and stretches across the Florida Keys, Miami, and north of Palm Beach into Martin County. This northern section along the mainland lies outside the protection of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990.

Unlike the Everglades, its sister ecosystem on land, the system of reefs that dot the southeastern Florida coastline does not have an iconic name. Scientists call it a “tract,” but I prefer to drop that ugly term and dub it the “Florida Reef.” Even better would be the term “Great Florida Reef,” but its recent history and status are anything but great.

A timeline for the Florida Reef within the IUCN report demonstrates that the number of new protective measures has waned since the end of the twentieth century. Note that a no-take area, banning all fishing and related activities, first appeared in 2001. These no-take areas comprise six percent of the reef area in the Florida Keys.

The list below revises the report’s original timeline by removing natural disasters and including only protective measures.

Timeline of Protective Measures for the Florida Reef

(adapted from Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs)


1935: Dry Tortugas National Monument established by President Roosevelt


Continue reading

We are Columbus-style killers

The Taino are an extinct people from the Caribbean, represented by this statue in Puerto Rico (Wikipedia).

The Taino are an extinct people from the Caribbean, represented by this statue in Puerto Rico (Wikipedia).

Anarchists and cultural purists have a saying: “Assimilation is Death.” They contend that when one group submits and conforms to the demands of a dominant culture, the submissive culture dies. And they have a point, because many languages and cultures have disappeared at the hands of colonization.

Biology and ecology are teaching us that this trend extends to nature. For ecosystems, the saying modifies into something like “Overpopulation is Death.” Think about it: the world’s most populated areas lack natural abundance, and the least populated areas are havens for the diversity of species and their proliferation. This force extends into places where people do not live directly but have quick access: the coastal ocean.

Death of the ocean is a difficult concept to grasp, but it is becoming a constant prediction in science. Dead zones around river deltas are well documented, but new targets include even larger areas and entire ecosystems.

In a strange twist for biologists, a new major report on Caribbean coral reefs makes an explicit connection between the fate of nature and the history of colonization:


Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

“Because of their isolation for millions of years, and by analogy to the fates of Native Americans after their first contact with Europeans, Caribbean species should be exceptionally prone to the impact of introduced diseases. And this appears to be the case.”

In other words, the expansion of humans across the Caribbean brings disease and death to the sea. This assertion comes from the report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, the most comprehensive review of its kind. It puts overpopulation at the top of its list of main threats.

What were the fates of Native Americans after Christopher Columbus? The very name “Caribbean” refers to the Carib people, and they were connected to the Taino people. Ever heard of them? Their languages are gone, and the Taino were assimilated and/or disappeared. Extinct. Dead.

What is the destiny of Caribbean coral reefs? Here is the report’s summary of its recommendations:

Caribbean Coral Reefs Status Report - Cover

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

“Caribbean coral reefs and their associated resources will virtually disappear within just a few decades unless all of these measures are promptly adopted and enforced.”

Did you get it? By 2044 (three decades from now), reefs will have disappeared. Extinct. Dead.

The good news for reefs, as opposed to indigenous Tainos, is that they are not extinct yet. But is their death preventable, or inevitable?

The status quo of increasing populations and increasing threats makes the death of all reefs inevitable, and only massive change can stop it, the report concludes. It also notes that many devoted people have abandoned hope:

“Concerns have mounted to the point that many NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have given up on Caribbean reefs and moved their attentions elsewhere.”

Why would you give up, submit, and succumb to domination? History has taught us to act otherwise.

Giving up is death.



Reef Week bests Shark Week by two weeks

This week, readers of this blog will be treated to an in-depth exploration of Caribbean reefs. Now you don’t have to take a vacation or wait for the Discovery Channel to deliver your ocean fix, courtesy of Shark Week (starting August 10).

Each day a new blog post will review an issue raised in an important new report: Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. For homework, you can read the report’s executive summary.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

One of the report’s major findings is called a “phase shift,” and it happens when a formerly healthy coral reef becomes smothered by algae. This unfortunate trend has been going on for decades across many Caribbean reefs.

Why do these reefs deserve attention now? In essence, they represent the most vulnerable large ecosystem in the world. These underwater “rainforests” are faring worse than rainforests on land. The report gives these reefs a death sentence in about 20 years.

Pacific reefs are in somewhat better shape (but not great either). The Caribbean is a smaller region, with fewer species than in the Pacific, and the explosion of populations and of tourism across the region has created a perfect storm of reef destruction.

The gloom and doom is a necessary wake-up call for a region with meager resources to deal with an immense problem. The report tries to paint a pretty picture of changing from “despair to repair,” and this perspective gives some hope. False hope? You decide.


Digging Miami, Part II

As a follow-up to the book review, here are my Cliff Notes of Digging Miami’s interesting tidbits.

It is quite startling to read that the mouth of the Miami River has been occupied for at least 2,500 years, yet we still insist on saying that Columbus “discovered” America and Ponce de Leon founded Florida (this year marks 500 years, and publicity for tourism is in full swing). How can you discover something that has already been found?

The Miami Circle remains mysterious.

The Miami Circle remains mysterious.

Descriptions of the Tequesta people indicate that they were quite adept at living alongside the dual watery worlds of the swamp and the ocean, and Carr states that by canoe they could navigate a wide swath of South Florida within hours. And to think that in Miami today, we still don’t have a water taxi.

The Tequesta settlement in Miami persisted until 1761, when Uchises Indians forced them to flee to Key West and eventually to Cuba. By 1763, Spain lost Florida to England.

Some ancient Tequesta paths have become today’s busiest highways. The ever-congested 836 Expressway follows the canoe trail that used to connect central Miami to the Everglades. Even the new Intermodal Center near the airport was built on top of a prehistoric village. I hope someone erects a sign.

I also learned that the highest natural point in Miami-Dade County is 19 feet above sea level. This sand mound is called Madden’s Hammock, and it is composed of fine-grained quartz, like beach sand. Many of its skeletons were raided by curiosity seekers.

Lastly, there’s a much more recent Bahamian cemetery (abandoned around 1940) that has been re-discovered in Lemon City, just a few miles from my house, so I plan to visit the memorial placed there in 2011 and review it for my Park Patrol column. Visions of Poltergeists danced in their heads…

By the way, this is South Florida we’re talking about–the end of the road on the East Coast. If Native Americans originally migrated from a land bridge between Asia and Alaska, how long did it take them to arrive in Miami? Did they push onwards to Cuba, or vice versa? Great mysteries indeed.

Review of dirty book, Digging Miami

Digging Miami by Robert S. Carr, 2012, University Press of Florida4206

The first archaeologist of Miami-Dade County has penned his account of discovering the Miami Circle and other impressive pre-historic artifacts in the most urbanized part of Florida. It also turns out to be one of the state’s most ancient areas, as it has been inhabited continuously for thousands of years.

The book’s title, Digging Miami, and its cover photo of the Miami Circle caught my eye. The Circle became a park in 2011, and the site was unknown until 1998. While not fully understood, the Miami Circle sits at the mouth of the Miami River where it feeds into Biscayne Bay, and this strategic site is also where modern-day Miami began. The Circle is attributed to the Tequesta Indians who lived in South Florida until they went extinct after colonization (learn more here).

While full of interesting facts, the book suffers somewhat from the lack of a continuous narrative and diversions into archaeologist talk. For people unfamiliar with pre-historical Florida, it may be hard to follow the jumps between periods and locations, and for non- archaeologists, it gets difficult to remember which site is meant by “8DA11.” Named sites are much easier to envision.

What was enjoyable was the sense of discovery that accompanied many digs and especially those of gravesites. So many bones are buried beneath the skyscrapers of downtown that you start to worry about ancient curses arising to engulf the buildings or the sidewalk where you are strolling.

The book makes me excited to visit the Deering Estate again because of major finds on that property that may still be inaccessible to the public (I’ll have to work my contacts for an insider’s tour).

Everglades Hunt - Tequesta, by artist Theodore Morris

Everglades Hunt – Tequesta, by artist Theodore Morris

Although a strong and ancient connection to the sea should not be surprising, given Miami’s location, it’s quite dramatic to read that South Florida was one of only two places in North America where Native Americans “developed complex chiefdoms based on marine resources rather than agriculture” (p. 245). The other location is the Pacific Northwest. On the East Coast, this is it.

This book is recommended for people who want to discover a history of Miami that is completely opposite of its current tourism and television-based image. It is hard to imagine how people lived here when the Everglades licked at Miami’s doorstep and Miami Beach was an impenetrable mangrove swamp. But they certainly did, and the best evidence we have is in the dirt.

Tomorrow: Nuggets of Intrigue from Digging Miami


Where is sustainable?

The Brundtland Commission of 1987 created the popular definition for sustainability: it means using natural resources now in a way that will not compromise the quality of life of future generations. In essence, today’s actions have future consequences. The actual definition is about development, “which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Sustainability has been applied to various systems.

Sustainability has been applied to various systems.

With this definition in mind, you have to wonder: is anything sustainable? Seven billion people, just by existing and surviving, compromise the planet’s future. With 7 billion people eating, shopping and generally causing pollution, it would seem that the only sustainable activity would be genocide.

The problem with coupling the word “sustainability” with “development” is that it implies continuous growth, much like the classical model of capitalism that assumes the availability of more and more capital. A better term would be “sustainable living,” because life implies death, which is the opposite of development.

Sustainability has been co-opted by the corporate sector and affirmed by the United Nations as a “triple bottom line” of economics, healthy communities, and nature. In today’s world, the former two are gobbling up the latter and digesting it. Can you name one company that does not take more from nature than it gives?

Sustainability does not exist, and perhaps it cannot. Human nature exists, and it compels us to consume, and to take and take and take. We take natural resources. It is not in our nature to give.