There's A Powerful Plant That Could Change The World, And This Professor Knows Where It Is

What if we viewed dolphins as people? If we want to survive, we probably should start right now. According to Dee Eggers, they think like us, play like us, and empathize like us, which is sad because we are the masters of jerkery to their world. (And that's probably a foreshadowing of what's about to happen to us.) The takeaway from this video is to not only shift how we view marine life but also to see that how quickly we are using resources on this planet eventually will affect us too. The good news is that Eggers has a solution at the end. It's a brilliant talk. I laughed, I cried, it was better than "Cats."

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Dee Eggers: A student walked into my office one day and said he'd like to talk to me about doing an undergraduate research project, and I said, "Sure, what are you thinking about?" And he said, "Well, there's been so much research done on bottlenose dolphins that we now know they meet the universal definition of persons." And I said, "Keep talking."

I didn't even realize until that moment that I had never thought of persons as anything but humans. You know, interchangeably. The implications, though, if dolphins are persons, is that they have moral standing, and what that means from an environmental policy and management perspective is that we wouldn't be managing populations of dolphins, they would actually individually have rights. In that project, we looked at which rights in the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be extended to dolphins, or actually really we would recognize that they already have those rights. I'm not going to talk about the project tonight specifically. What is a person, though? Philosophers have lots of ideas about this. There's rough consensus, discussed by Thomas White in his book "In Defense of Dolphins," around eight criteria.

A person is alive, aware, feels positive and negative sensations and has emotions. A person also has a sense of self, controls its own behavior, recognizes other persons and treats them appropriately, and has a variety of sophisticated cognitive abilities, problem solving, abstract thought, etc. I'm not going to make a case that dolphins are persons tonight, I'm just going to tell you some stories. Also because many definitions of personhood have a big weakness that has to do with verbal communication, which I think is kind of funny because the language spoken by more organisms than any other language on earth is actually bioluminescence, so our views of language and communication are pretty limited. Several years ago, there was a man who was at an aquarium and he was looking through the window at this baby dolphin on the other side of the glass and he was smoking a cigarette, because this was several years ago.

He took a dragged off his cigarette and he blew it toward the baby dolphin and it spread out on the glass. And the baby dolphin swim away to its mother and got a mouthful of milk and swam back and faced him and squirted the milk out on the...Yeah. Where's that in the list? So, abstract thought, materials substitution ability, pretty impressive.

Another story. There's a diver, he was diving down at about 60 feet, he was on the bottom doing something, and three dolphins swam up to him, two adults and a baby in between them. And they swam right up to him and the adults held the baby down on the bottom in front of him. The baby dolphin had a hook in front of its tail and the fishing line was wrapped around its fin and was cutting into it. So, they held this dolphin down in front of this human and the guy took out his knife and he cut the lines and unwrapped the fishing line, and he tried to pull the hook out but it was too embedded for him to pull out. And the dolphins were still holding that thing, and so he cut it out with his knife, which without question was quite painful for the baby dolphin, but he got it all cleaned up. So one adult and the baby swam off, and the other adult swam right up to his mask and put his snout right up in his face, which is normally aggression but he said it was clearly not an aggressive move at all, and that dolphin just...They just looked into each other's eyes for a long time and then that dolphin swam away.

Dolphins see with their eyes, but they really experienced the world through sonar. So if a dolphin is in front of us under water, it would be able to see, it could tell all the differences in density, so it would be able to see all of our organs individually. They can tell differences in the thickness down to a millimeter, or probably less, that's as far as we can figure out they can tell. It would see our blood flowing. It would see all kinds of activity.

Dolphins can tell when humans are pregnant because they're like, "Yep. That's in there. I know what that's about," you know. There's actually a case where a dolphin indicated a woman was pregnant before she knew she was pregnant. But they see with sonar, which raises lots of questions, and I'm sure that dolphin was doing all kinds of sonar stuff with the human, but we don't have sensory equipment for that.

Can they lie? When humans lie, our palms sweat, and our heart rate changes and things. Dolphin could see all of that happening, and they could see it happening in each other, so unless they could lie with no physiological change, it might be that they can't or don't lie, or maybe they do. But it's interesting to think, what would a society be like if lying weren't possible and had never been possible. Wow. I don't think we'd actually have the climate crisis and a lot of other things. A woman researcher was, she swam with dolphins a lot, worked with them, there was a storm, her boat turned over, there was a plastic bag with a bunch of tools in it that fell down to the bottom and it was lost.

After the storm, she's down at the beach, she's going out for a swim, there's a dolphin there waiting as was often the case to go swimming with her, and the dolphin takes her out to a spot and dives down and brings up her tool kit in its mouth and hands, you know, hands it to her [laughs] no, so she takes the toolkit and then the dolphin swam away. I mean, that was its purpose, like, "I'm going to get your stuff, come on."

They're also artists. Dolphins blow bubble rings. I couldn't find a non copyrighted picture, but go online and search on that, dolphins, bubble rings. So they blow them, they look like doughnuts and they can change them into all kinds of shapes, they like to swim through them, and be creative and do multiple bubble rings, and they also express frustration if the bubble rings aren't doing what they want and they'll slap them with their tails, and, you know, exhibit feelings like they're, it seems like they're frustrated. Maybe not. Dolphin brains are very different from our brains. They're larger, and what makes them larger is that they have more brain material in the area of the brain that is devoted to higher functions. Dolphins also have more gray matter than humans, and their gray matter has more folds in it than human's gray matter. At first, when I heard about this, I thought, "You know, I bet other things would be persons, too, like elephants, dogs," and this and that.

But then, after I looked into it, I was like, oh, actually dolphins have the second most complex brain on the planet, and there's no close third. Their brains are way more complex than great apes. They're much closer to us in a lot of different ways of measuring intelligence, and things. They also have the emotional centers of their brains more integrated with their motor and sensory perception, and also their higher functioning parts of their brains, where we would be doing reasoning.

So, as opposed to us where our emotional center is more isolated, in dolphins it's pretty integrated. They're touching along a lot of surface, so it might be possible that dolphins can't be out of touch with their emotions, and they clearly have emotions, and they clearly grieve, and they clearly experience joy, or whatever they call joy.

So my student said to me, "By dolphin standards, humans might be autistic." I know, it's kind of funny, but this is very meaningful, too,because he grew up with an autistic brother, so he knew what he was talking about. He was like, "We're probably autistic." I said, "Oh my gosh. We're autistic compared to dogs, where autistic compared to..," you know, you got a long list.

There are all kinds of cetaceans and it's not just dolphins that we find amazing relationships. There was a humpback whale, a 40 or 50 foot long humpback whale, off the coast of San Francisco in 2005. This was the very first successful time we ever unwrapped a humpback whale that was trapped in all kinds of ropes, and it had crab pot ropes all over it.

It had 20 of them. They're about 240 feet long, they have weights every 60 feet, and several of them had 90-pound crab pots still on them. And there was one wrapped multiple times around its tail, there was one in its mouth, all over it. It was in very bad shape, and a call went in, some highly experienced divers went out and risk their lives because one swish of a humpback's tail could easily kill a diver.

The whale stayed still, had a little trouble staying up because of all the weights connected to it, while they carefully, with curved knives, because the ropes were cutting into its blubber, with curved knives they cut all of the ropes away. And the whale, when it realized it was free, it swam all over the place, and they said it looked like it was frolicking.

And then, they had this vibration going in the water the whole time that they could feel, then the humpback whale, this is a 50 ton animal, went up to every single diver individually and nuzzled it, and then swam away.

So, we're in this intimate relationship with them, of course, we already lived together, but we're being like really bad roommates. We're being like roommates that threw all of our garbage in our roommate's bedroom, you know, and we ate all their food, and their parents came over and we killed them and then we ate them.

This is the truth, so, and then we figure out, wow, oh my gosh, these were [inaudible] really cool, wonderful individuals and I'd like to get to know them, and I've been treating them so badly, this is terrible. So, we have a great opportunity to expand our relationships, which is wonderful.

What's not wonderful is that scientists predict that we're going to lose most of the dolphins to extinction, forever, by 2100. That is not acceptable to me. Can I get a witness? The extinction crisis, the numbers we are on track for right now for all life on earth, is somewhere between 25% and 50% becoming extinct by 2100. Somewhere between 25% to 50%% becoming extinct by 2100. Now, usually this is where people want to turn off their minds, like, "That hurt. Maybe I didn't hear that right," or it bounces off because it's such a high number. But we have to look at this even though it hurts. I think if it, like, if I went into an emergency room, or somebody goes into an emergency room, and they're hurt badly and the doctors like, "Whoa. I don't want to look at that. Oh, man, that could be bad. When do I get off?"

We've got to go, "OK. What's the situation and how are we going to handle it?" The cool thing about the extinction crisis is that we all go, or nobody goes. We can't save dolphins without saving millions of other species in the process, which is fantastic. So we all go, or nobody goes.

The challenge right now, the late Thomas Berry said, what we have to do is the great work. I say what we have to do is restore world garden. That's what I call it. We have to restore world garden. So, what I would talk about our, all my degrees are environmental science degrees, I was actually a tree hugger as a child. I didn't even know there was a term for that, and I was hugging trees as a child. Really. I was eating dirt, too. Oh, yeah, [inaudible] child.

So I'm going to give you four big ideas that are things that we need to do if we're going to restore world garden. The first one is the hardest, but it's not optional, and that's not it...am I pushing the wrong button? Oh, there it is. You can't even tell what that is. That's a really bad image of [inaudible] from the fish and wildlife folks up in Vermont.

But what we need to do is reconnect our habitats. We have fragmented are habitats and that's one of the major reasons for the extinction crisis. What we've created on terrestrial Earth is a bunch of islands. They're isolated. So if you imagine a Persian carpet, a large Persian carpet, and it's got a beautiful, complex design on it and every part of that carpet is connected to every other part of that carpet through the warp and the weft and through a series of complex relationships. It's a good metaphor for an ecosystem. So we've cut that up, paved over some of it, burnt some of it, thrown it away or whatever, planted rice on it, and there are pieces left, but they're isolated. And each one is not as incredible as the entire Persian carpet and each one is commencing to fall apart, so we need to restore them and have protected areas with corridors in between.

This is difficult. We run into the fifth amendment on property rights and all kinds of other things, but it's actually not optional. If we want to be stewards of the future of life and maintain habitability on this planet, this is not optional, so we might as well say, "Yay, we get to do it." The fact that it's not optional makes the fact that it's hard pretty much irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. And just like Drew said, most of the things worth having or accomplishments worth achieving are hard. So this is fantastic, restore world garden on this one. Another tremendous opportunity is microalgae. We already have a sustainable fuel available, and I'd been preaching about microalgae for years, and I'm going to preach about it tonight, and you'll know why, and you'll walk out with microalgae forever on your soul. I'm going to save you. All right, I'm going to heal you.

Some species of microalgae are very fatty, they're 70 or more percent lipid by weight. We can grow them. We don't do this in the ocean and squeeze the ocean, we grow them in an isolated place. So we grow them and we can press the oil out of them and they can use that oil for lots of engines.

You can just burn straight in, or we can convert it to biodiesel, or whatever we want. The incredible thing about microalgae is this, the best crop we have right now for producing oil is oil palm. With oil palm we can produce maybe 650 gallons per acre per year. Maybe a couple more hundred than that, but that's it.

In North Carolina, the most promising for us would be rapeseed, which would be maybe 47 gallons per acre per year. With microalgae, by 1999, the U.S. government had already demonstrated 5000 to 10,000 gallons per acre per year. There's a company out there that a couple of years ago said they demonstrated 30,000 gallons per acre per year, and they knew they could do 100. So, if we do this sustainably there's no downside, and if you go online and you search green Xprize and microalgae, Jonah Butcher and I did a two minute pitch for this to be for the xprize competition, and you can kind of learning everything you need to know to begin in two minutes. So I encourage you, if you're interested.

If we would burn our forest, it could save us. No. This is a pile of charcoal. This is a pile of charcoal. This is biochar, and biochar can save us. Drew was up here talking about reducing emissions, and getting to 350. We've got to get to 350, 350 is the goal, so we have to turn around and take a big step forward.

Biochar is one of the ways to do this because since we're above 350, we've got to start doing sequestration today. Down in South America there were soils that anthropologists called dark earth. Terra preta. And they didn't know where the soils had come from because they were around areas where there had been civilizations. They didn't know if people lived there because the dark earth was there because it produced a lot more, or if the people made these soils this way, that they are highly productive.

And we found out that they made them that way by making biochar and mixing it into the soil, because it radically improves electron transport and some other things. So we've decimated our soils. This is a great win-win, because we can rebuild our soils and this is a wonderful way to start doing that in the carbon that gets in there is sequestered. We have the data. People did it for us.

The carbon stays for thousands of years, it doesn't just decompose and return to the atmosphere. Because it's not decomposing, it's just interacting with things, but it's not changing its form. So this is incredible, Biochar is fantastic and a way to a sustainable future. And finally, there's just one special class of beings that need to have attention paid to them specifically. And that's because they're the birth of life, and they are the pollinators. A lot of people know that we're having colony collapse disorder with a European honeybees, but what most people don't know is that for decades our native pollinators, which are better than European honeybees, our native pollinators have been crashing. Those populations have been crashing.

It's primarily because of pesticide use and loss of habitat somewhere, but primarily pesticide use. So this is something that you and I can do for sure in our lives, whether we plant a pollinator garden, without pesticides, on our own property or encourage the city to do it or make sure other people are doing it. Learn about what kind of plants work for pollinators.

When I was a little kid, I've always had this connection to bees and wasps and I don't know why. There's a bumblebee you can see very well on my scarlet runner beans, which were covered with bees all summer, I just loved it. But when I was a little kid, I used to carry bumblebees around. Never got stung. My mom would say, "You're going to get stung." And I would say, "No, I'm not."

I was just, wow, these are neat. They are more than neat, they are the future of life, so they deserve special stewardship attention If we care about ourselves. It's for our own self interest, all of this is for our own self interest. Back to dolphins for a minute. Maybe dolphins are nonhuman persons. I don't know if they're nonhuman persons, but what I do know is that when we interact with non human beings and instead of thinking of them as "it", which means we don't interact with them. they are just "its."

Instead of being with them as an it, if we are with them as a you or as a thou, that increases our own humanness, and that makes our own life are more meaningful, and I hope that you will walk out of here with different eyes and question the other species, as native Americans would say, the two legged people, the four legged people, the swimming people, the flying people, the crawling people, and I would add the photosynthesizing people, and welcome them to the family and let's restore world garden. Thank you.

There may be small errors in this transcript.
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My blogger friend, Mo the Human, got me really turned on to this TEDxAsheville talk after sharing it with me on Facebook. Both Mo the Human and TEDxAsheville are chock-full o' ideas if you're interested in checking them out. Also, special thanks to Dee Eggers for a kick-ass talk!

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Matt Orr

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