When well-intentioned environmentalism backfires

In the late 1990s, my grandfather purchased a mail-order bat box as a natural approach to mosquito management. The dark green plywood perch was mounted on tall wooden poles in a sunny area of ​​the yard and stabilized with guy wires. The catalog promised that the bats would raise their young inside the box and feast on the mosquitoes that swarmed my grandparents’ lakefront yard.

The bat box has always seemed like an undisputed win for all parties (except the mosquitoes). But when I started researching a bat box for our mosquito-infested property in North Carolina, I learned that some standard boxes, like the ones my grandfather used, are essentially bat ovens. In warm months, artificial roosts that are poorly placed, too small, painted darkly, or insufficiently ventilated can reach lethal temperatures, killing baby bats.

This realization shook me, and I suspect it would have deeply disturbed my grandfather, who took great pride in his environmental stewardship. But this is how science should work: hypothesize, test, share, modify, repeat. Sometimes that’s a shame, but how else can we know if our corrective measures are doing what we want?

In 2021 several experts discussed each other on the pages of Conservation science and practice if it helped bats publicize the potential lethality of a bat box. “Telling people that their well-intentioned conservation efforts are wrong is rarely productive,” wrote Virgil Brack Jr. and Dale W. Sparks, principal scientists at Environmental Solutions & Innovations, Inc. The subjects of their criticism, Reed D. Crawford and Joy M O’Keefe of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, responded that they will continue to raise awareness “that the reckless use of inappropriate boxes could expose bats to deadly temperatures “. Both sides agreed that the design and implementation of artificial shelters could and should be improved. Once again the reckoning is uncomfortable but necessary.

Even amateur beekeepers are rethinking some things. Once considered the environmentalist equivalent of a victory garden, the European hives that were established in backyards and rooftops across the United States in the early 2010s following reports of “colony collapse” may “actually have an influence negative on native and wild bee populations through flowers”. competition for resources and transmission of pathogens,” according to research published in 2023 by environmentalists at Concordia University and the University of Montreal.

“For people who say they want to save bees and have a beehive, it’s kind of like throwing Asian carp into the Great Lakes and saying you want to save native fish,” said Sheila Colla, a conservation professor at the University of York. The Washington Post in May 2023.

The unintended effects of good intentions increase rather quickly when government policy drives environmental efforts. In August, Science reported that the 2020 emissions regulations imposed by the United Nations International Maritime Organization had the desired effect of reducing the amount of sulfur released by ships into the air, as well as the unintended effect of simultaneously reducing the volume of clouds at sulfur base, called “ship tracks”, which form along shipping lanes and reflect the sun away from Earth.

“By drastically reducing the number of ship tracks, the planet warmed up faster,” he explained Science journalist Paul Voosen. “This trend is amplified in the Atlantic, where maritime traffic is particularly dense. In maritime corridors, increased light represents a 50% increase in the warming effect of human carbon emissions.”

In China, ambitious government subsidies for green energy projects in the late 2010s spurred an explosion in electric vehicle (EV) development that is now readily evident in car graveyards across the country where obsolete EVs have been abandoned. “Not only are the sites an eyesore,” Bloomberg News reported in 2023, but “getting rid of electric vehicles so quickly reduces their climate benefits considering they are more emissions-intensive to build and yields an advantage over combustion cars only after a few years. .”

There are also policies where personal conservation and government environmental policy collide in spectacularly terrifying ways. In a September essay titled “We Thought We Were Saving the Planet, But We Were Setting a Time Bomb” in The New York Times, Canadian writer and essayist Claire Cameron recounted her personal reckoning with her time spent planting trees on logging land in Ontario, only to discover years later that her efforts helped fuel forest fires.

“This was a common, if notoriously exhausting, rite of passage for Canadian university students, as it allowed one to earn good money while spending a few months outdoors with other like-minded young people. I was driven in part by the idealistic vision that planting a tree would always be better than not planting one.”

Except that the trees they were planting were all the same species, water-hungry and highly flammable, well spaced five feet apart. “Much later, I learned that the trees we were planting, the black spruce, are so combustible that firefighters call them gas on a stick. The trees evolved to burn: They have flammable sap and their full cones of resin open when heated and drop the seeds into the charred soil.” To make matters even more complicated, the tree planting program was run by private logging companies but driven by government incentives.

For some, these unintended consequences will elicit schadenfreude; for others, desperation. But there is a silver lining to these revelations, which is that we learn something new every day, month and year about what types of eco-management produce good results and how much those results cost. While government agencies are not Bayesian actors, individuals and private companies can be. At the human level, we can react and adapt to new knowledge, avoid or abandon well-intentioned disasters, and make choices that positively impact our local ecology.

In some cases, the best thing you can do for the environment is to leave it alone. It turns out that bats are naturally attracted to roosting on dead tree trunks. My property is full of them.

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