Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Observer 108
The Amazon River Science and the Environment


James A Karr, PhD

This article is adapted from the keynote address at PRBO's 1996 annual meeting by James R. Karr, a professor of fisheries, zoology, environmental health, and public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. Dr. Karr works to protect ecological health by guiding improvements in environmental policy. His research includes the ecology of tropical forest birds, stream ecology, and landscape management. - Editor

The Amazon Basin would capture the imagination of any biologist, and it has also contributed immeasurably to the biological sciences. It was my good fortune this year to be resident naturalist on a cruise down the Amazon River. During the trip, we sailed 2089 nautical miles in two weeks from Iquitos, Peru, to Belem, Brazil. We explored the stream channels and flooded forests, the floating meadows and lakes, the mighty tributaries of the world's largest river. In one day, we went from navigating the tidally influenced lower Amazon to tours of Belem, a city founded by the Portuguese in 1616, and Brasilia, Brazil's 27-year-old capital. Carefully planned in anticipation of a population of 1.2 million by the year 2000, Brasilia's current population is about 3 million: there are many lessons there. But we did not go to Brazil to see the cities; we went for the biology.

Why are people fascinated by the very words, "Amazonian rainforest"? Because they conjure up images of the entire diversity of life. Sure, the physical setting for what lives there has its grandeur. The huge flow of water sliding eastward off the Andes carves its way through the remnants of the Brazilian and Guianan shields, creating complex alluvial plains. This flow is equivalent to 12 Mississippi Rivers; the river's levels change between high and low water by as much as 40 feet. But for me and the others on the expedition, the biota is what was exciting.

That same biota fascinated eighteenth-century biogeographer Baron Alexander von Humboldt and, later, Charles Darwin; it helped Darwin define his concept of evolution. Thousands of species of birds, two freshwater dolphins, water lilies with leaves six feet across, and floating by boat through the canopy of a flooded forest - who would not be captivated?

My thoughts during this Amazon trip, just two weeks before PRBO's annual meeting in May of 1996, blended the vision of von Humboldt with the "binocular view" described by John Harte at your meeting last year (see Observer 104,Summer 1995), contrasting the views of environmental doomsayers and cornucopians.

And in fact, the dichotomy Harte described originated at least two centuries ago in a battle between scientific ideas.

--In the rush to gain in-depth knowledge, science and society lost sight of the need to tie the knowledge together --

Von Humboldt wanted to catalogue the natural world in detail and to formulate a grand theory that would unify and link natural phenomena, including humanity's place within these interdependent relationships. He essentially created and popularized a new profession, that of "scientist," a word that entered the English language some 20 years later in 1830.


Von Humboldt's view was soon supplanted by fragmentation, by the breaking down of phenomena into their supposed component parts - a theme that has dominated science now for two centuries. Science was taken over by narrow specializations, and, in the rush to gain in-depth knowledge, science and society lost sight of the need to tie the knowledge together.

Worse, we began to deny the reality that humans are tied to the complex interrelationships that fascinated von Humboldt, Darwin, and other critical thinkers. Instead, the struggle between specialization and integration continues today, as people of Harte's binocular viewpoints - the optimists and the pessimists - vie for dominance. Optimists lead society to behave as if no negative ecological consequences derived from our actions - as if there were no ecological risks. We think that repair and replacement of lost or broken parts is easy. We buy new houses. We get new jobs. We replace teeth and severed limbs, even hearts. We replace natural biological systems with corn, cows, cars, cancer, and carbon dioxide.

But we cannot replace our places. Whether place means Marin County, the Bay Area, the western United States, or planet Earth, place is finite.

We know much about human health risk and short-term economic risks, and do much to plan for them. Why don't we give as much attention to ecological risks and the environmental deficits that result from our failure to anticipate ecological risks?
Because we organize our knowledge in pieces; we choose to ignore connections. We have lost von Humboldt's profound insights.

Even the outlook of the modern environmental movement - sustained by people who might be expected to understand von Humboldt's message - is often too narrow.Too many of its constituents continue to focus on endangered species and wilderness protection while ignoring the environmental realities faced by minority groups and by children in inner cities or rural communities.

Fortunately, this picture is changing. We are beginning to recognize that we cannot repair and replace the lost or damaged parts of ecological systems, and we are beginning to understand the connections between environmental degradation and social decline. Citizen groups, scholars, and leaders in politics, labor, business, and religion recognize that the scale of human activities threatens Earth's life-support systems and thus human society. We cannot expect to grapple with that problem as long as significant components of society assume that we are not connected to natural systems.

PRBO's biological research is essential to reveal and educate people about those connections and the trends that define what is happening to the life-support systems that birds and humans depend on. But we must see the world as von Humboldt did in order to understand the message behind the research.

The thrill of doing research at PRBO carries a heavy burden. PRBO, like other knowledgeable institutions and individuals, must not only see but must also communicate beyond the binocular view. And PRBO must not become entangled in the mantle of "science" that has dominated graduate training in recent decades. Scientifically "objective" and concerned organizations are as responsible for destroying Earth's life-support systems as are the cornucopians. It is our responsibility - whether as scientists, environmentalists, or both - to keep von Humboldt's insights and connections in view and to challenge others to see them clearly.

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