Courtesy Frogworld.net

Courtesy Frogworld.net

BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER – A few weeks ago we were being told to feel good about nuclear energy, allegedly a safe, green alternative to coal and oil.

The fallout from the Japan tsunami has contaminated that dream. We have had an environmental 9/11. Everything will change.

Nuclear power plants that have had no problem up to now are suddenly suspect. And as 9/11 gave us extensive body scans for weapons, we will soon have them for radiation.

The reality has not really changed. Nuclear power plants, apart from the damaged ones in Japan, are operating as they did a few weeks ago. But our feelings about them have changed.

We humans are run by our feelings. We think of ourselves as “rational” animals. But we are more “rationalizing” than rational. We use our minds to justify our feelings.

Just a few days before the Japan disaster began, I was speaking at an environmental law conference in Eugene, Oregon about the environmental and legal problems caused by invasive species control and eradication efforts. As my poster child for invasion biology gone mad I used the Frog War conducted here in Hawaii against the coqui. I never imagined that the coqui would be connected in many ways to a disaster that was about to begin in Japan.

The first connection was the way people view living with nuclear power and coqui frogs. Would you rather have coqui frogs or a nuclear power plant in your back yard?

As it happens, if you do have a nuclear power plant in your back yard, or if you are in the path of nuclear radiation from a nuclear power plant explosion as it spreads across the planet with the winds, you would probably be better off with coquis also in your back yard.

Before I explain why this may be so, you may be wondering what’s up with the coquis in Hawaii that even makes them an issue. So for those new to Hawaii and who have missed all the anti-coqui propaganda of the past decade, here is some background.

The small tree frog is being attacked and has been officially declared a pest in Hawaii mostly because of its chirping “noise”. Meanwhile, this same frog is honored as the national animal of Puerto Rico, where it is loved for its nocturnal “serenade”. Whether noise or serenade is clearly in the ears of the beholder.

But there’s more. The coqui frog is also not native to Hawaii, and the current fashion in environmentalism is to try to restore ancient environments by removing species that have arrived since western contact. Of course, attacking a species for not being native is a biological anti-immigration policy, promoting hatred and intolerance for immigrant species. It is a type of bigotry and breeds the same negative cultural behaviors that bigotry against human immigrants brings.

The coqui frog is a perfect example of enviro-bigotry. Yes, some people don’t like the sound of coquis and may want to remove the frogs from their immediate surroundings. But a government sponsored eradication campaign?

Since the Frog War began around a decade ago, the only damage has been, not from the frogs, but from the war itself.

Everything is attitude. A field bulldozed in Waimea to kill a few coqui frogs (this actually happened) can be seen as either destruction or remediation.

Is the poisoning of 35 acres of mangroves on the Big Island and leaving them to rot along the shoreline environmental destruction or restoration?

Is releasing a biocontrol insect to attack and infest strawberry guava on hundreds of thousands of acres of private and public lands statewide natural resource destruction or native resource preservation?

Your answer depends on how you feel about coqui frogs, mangroves, strawberry guava, and how you feel about the impacts to the environment of bulldozers, poisons, pestilence.

Is a nuclear power plant a potential disaster or a green solution?

A lot of feelings were swept away this month by the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Many people feel worse about nuclear energy, but some on the Big Island now feel better about the coqui frogs and their chirping.

The reason for the new found coqui appreciation has to do with release of radiation from Japan and whether it would reach Hawaii.

How does this relate to coquis? As evacuation was ordered in Hawaii for the tsunami, people were on edge as fear gripped their minds. And in the darkness of nights following that night of sirens warning of a pending tsunami, some people were unable to sleep as they worried about nuclear fallout from the damaged power plants. And then their minds shifted to the sound of the coquis.

When I returned home many people told me they had been soothed and comforted by that coqui sound. The frogs were happy. All must be well, they thought. And they were able to go back to sleep.

Some people buy Geiger counters that chirp when there is radiation. Coqui frogs chirp when there is no radiation.

Coqui frogs, like all amphibians, are environmental health indicators. Frogs are among the first species to show impacts from pollution. If you have healthy frogs, chances are you have a healthy environment. On the other hand, you don’t want to live where there are sick, mutating, or dying frogs.

So for us in Hawaii who live with coquis, we now have a nighttime sound that tells us that our environment is healthy. We have coquis in the coal mine.

It’s the same sound as it was a few weeks ago. But now, it is a reassuring sound in a polluting world.

It all has to do with how we feel. And it seems the worse people feel about pollution and radiation, the better they may feel about coqui frogs.

So here is a reminder that we are all in this together. If a tsunami, earthquake, nuclear fallout or other disaster threatens our islands, we all suffer together. Not just people. Everything. Even the frogs.

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Sydney Ross Singer is a medical and environmental anthropologist, author, and director of the Good Shepherd Foundation, located on the Big Island. Sydney is a pioneer of applied medical anthropology, and he is also the director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease.