Saturday, April 28, 2012

Eco Block

Yikes!  Somehow yesterday, I got caught up in the passion of the moment at Occupy Wall Street, and volunteered - for what, I wasn't exactly sure.  A small merry band followed our recruiter from Liberty Plaza, and gathered in an empty office suite where about a dozen organizers were waiting with plans for the direct action.  They were prepared with everything from low-tech torn cardboard and markers, to hightech a/v equipment for documentation and interviews, plus electronic gadgets for on-the-go communication.  While a large contingent marched from Zuccotti to gather in front of the Federal building, the six of us who had agreed to participate in civil disobedience spent some time getting to know each other, while we reviewed the strategy, what to expect, and the inevitable legal consequences.
We entrusted all loose possessions other than identification to the jail support group.  Next, we each made our individual signs with whatever message we personally wished to convey, to be later repeated in a mike check during the action.  Of course, mine said "Industrial Civilization = Eco-pocalypse". When the word came to mobilize, a little cat and mouse up and down subway stairs ensued, as we wended our surreptitious way, trying to conceal our folded signs inconspicuously, through passageways beneath the distant thunderings of drums at the rally.  Abruptly we emerged in position, directly opposite the Stock Exchange.  Do I look nervous? Oh indeed, I was! But so was everybody else.  Oddly, we were four suburban women around my age - I called us the Matron Brigade - and two more experienced 20-somethings.


I never could quite make it out before, but that reverberating roar from the crowd is the chant "Ah! Anti! Anti-Capitalista!" - but then, I still come across written lyrics from rock'n'roll songs I thought I had memorized fom the 1960's and I'll think:  "OH! Is THAT what they were saying?"  This U-stream from an Android phone might sieze up now and then, but it gives a gritty sense of what it's like to be in the midst of a vibrant, exhilarating , raucous protest.

Video streaming by UstreamIt made for a very strange vantage, to be lying down on concrete in the city, staring straight up at a blue sky with only the top of the Stock Exchange roofline visible above the ragged edge of my sign.
Also peculiar was to have photographers literally climbing all over us to get pictures from above...and then after they were shooed away, to be surrounded by a sea of police.


That's us, going into our paddy wagon!

 
Every member of the entire force we encountered was extremely courteous, which I appreciated, but doesn't quite make up for the fact that we were detained for nothing other than peacefully exercising our Constitutional rights.  Losing circulation from handcuffs became old pretty fast, and spending six hours behind bars was a bit much - although we were all together, so we made the most of it with story-telling, singing, and laughter.  When we were finally released later that night, a surprisingly large loyal group of occupiers had waited all those hours outside in the cold and dark to greet each of us as we were released, with cheers, hugs, vegetarian dumplings, and whiskey if so desired.  I had to skip all that to get across town and catch the last train home.

There are many other events happening around New York and the country as an exciting prelude to the May Day strike. Every single officer we spoke to asked us about it.  I got the definite impression that the city and the banks are taking this very seriously and are anxious, perhaps not about anything wild happening on that exact day..but my guess is that they fear a large and enthusiastic turnout will signal that OWS is strong, thriving, and has no plans of going away until this "Capitalista" system is fundamentally altered to give equal justice to the 99%.  And I wager their worst misgivings are accurate.  Naturally I will be taking part in the environmental side of the activities.  Following is a release for the Environmental Color Block, from the sustainability working group plans for the event.  I haven't decided yet whether to wear green, for Reclaim the Earth - or the white, for Consciousness Shift.  We are sorely in need of both.
Eco Block Trailer from Where are all the bees? on Vimeo.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Expect Us!

ABC News from Australia has featured a video so harshly blunt about the dismal prospects for the fate of trees, I wouldn't expect to see it compete for a time slot on an American channel against Dancing With the Stars anytime soon.  The discussion revolves around the horrifying fact that all sorts of tree species are rapidly dying around the world.  Featured in the interviews is Craig Allen of the USGS.  He is well-known as a proponent of the notion that trees are dying primarily because of drought from climate change.  Rather than refute this narrow interpretation yet again, I'd rather refer anyone who becomes thoroughly terrified after watching that presentation to download the pdf of Pillage, Plunder & Pollute, LLC (A Global Glut of Invisible Trace Gases is Destroying Life on Earth) and check in particular Section V, p. 48 - Sharks that Smell Blood in the Water - Insects, Disease, and Fungus - oh my! and Section IX, p. 85 - Professor Plum in the Library with the Rope - Is it Drought?  Following are screenshots from Australian trees, but they could just as well depict identical conditions in many if not most places:

I'm not going to go into much more detail about the underlying culprit causing trees to succumb to various biotic attacks, because the entire purpose in writing the aforementioned PP&P "treetise" is so that I won't feel obliged to rehash each facet of the debate every single time I post on Wit's End...although it's more than a little frustrating that Allen persists in his obsession with drought.  I did write to him more than once over two years ago, to point out that even trees decidedly NOT in unprecedented drought conditions, including young saplings meant for transplant that are being watered in landscape nurseries, are dying just as fast as wild trees in forests.  Not to mention that for those areas that are experiencing drought, controlled chamber fumigation experiments have proven that exposure to ozone shrivels root systems even before there is (now ubiquitous) visible injury to foliage, making trees more likely to lose vigor in dry conditions.

The cankers they examine - harbingers of inevitably lethal fungus - have been proliferating where I live in New Jersey, including on irrigated trees, since 2008.  A fungus has been the ostensible cause of death for over one million live oaks in California.  Splitting bark from fungus can be readily located from a casual survey on trees from the Ozarks to Maine, regardless of precipitation.  In spite of my pleas neither Allen nor his colleagues appeared even vaguely curious enough to investigate empirical, easily verifiable evidence that doesn't fit their pre-conceived bias.  He did apparently register something I have been stressing ever since this blog began because he repeated, almost verbatim:

"There may be insects and fungal pests that emerge at that point in time, but underlying it is the physiological stress on the trees that compromises their defences. You could think of it actually sort of like HIV in humans. HIV doesn't directly kill people, but by compromising our immune systems, it makes us vulnerable to secondary ah, you know, viruses and other things that can kill us. It's similar in trees."  Sound familiar??  That was getting much, much closer to the unspeakable truth, and if Craig will just take another itty bitty baby step just one further and wonder WHAT trees all share in common that could be compromising them EVERYWHERE (hint:  it's the composition of the atmosphere!!) then I will bequeath him my blog.


I can't embed the video from that site but with a click here it will pop right up with the transcript.


They also observe a failure to fruit, and seed bank decline - again, well established reactions to tropospheric ozone as recorded in published scientific literature over decades of research, amply summarized by both the EPA and USDA.  At least the Australian professor admits there's a missing element:


"Prof Giles Hardy:
The canker problem is probably the most severe thing that's happening in our forests at the moment. We've never seen it causing these levels of deaths, and now it is. So something has changed...we don't fully understand what's driving these declines, but in some areas we're losing a hundred per cent of the trees."



And then to top it off, the "man who loves trees" almost as much as he loves himself had yet another stupid anthropocentric article in the HuffPo, to which I commented after this quote from him:


"They sweep air pollution out of the air in our cities and suburbs and clean water through their complex root system."

That's great, Jim Robbins. What happens to those trees that are absorbing our pollution through their leaves and roots? Ozone gives people cancer and other fatal diseases. It does even much worse things to trees. It rots their roots making them more vulnerable to drought and wind, and rots their interiors making branches break. Ozone and acid rain make them lose their natural resistance to insects, disease and fungus. Pollution lowers their production of nuts, seeds, and fruits so they can't reproduce. If you really care about trees so much, why not talk about that?

He of course blames warmer winters for bark beetles:  "They are dying all around us in the American West. I came to realize what climate change can do to trees when bark beetles, their season lengthened by unusually warm winters, attacked trees on my 15 acres of pine forest in Montana," conveniently ignoring the fact that the first ever proven case of trees dying from bark beetle infestation, thanks to a compromised immunity from exposure to ozone, was from back in the 1950's in the extraordinarily polluted hills above Los Angeles, where it NEVER approaches extended winter freeze.

What I had really intended to share in this post, before I got distracted into that foray with the endless, inescapable "tree expert" folderol, is this next film that charmed me with my two favorite themes for photography - the exquisite perfection of nature's tenacity and diversity, and the tantalizingly extravagant decay of symbols of civilization.  This wonderful cinematography depicts the remarkable resurgence of habitat and wildlife in the midst of the radioactive ruins of Chernobyl, since it was abandoned by humans after the nuclear plant meltdown.

It's got gratifying scenes of water re-flooding the parched wetlands, thanks to the industrious beavers that build dams across drainage canals, and rampant vegetation reclaiming the rusting, crumpled skeletons of homes, barns, schools and factories, where the former human inhabitants have been supplanted by surging populations of wolves and peregrine falcons, moose and bison.  What could be a more welcome reassurance to someone who fears that life on earth may not survive the wanton destruction and pollution of homo sapiens sapiens?

I'm not certain, but a disclaimer says it is only available to view in the US.  Anyone in another country who really wants to see it can order the overpriced DVD.  Or just skip it altogether and instead watch "Expect Us!" below - a movie from Occupy Wall Street that was just released in anticipation of the big strike on May 1, to see if you recognize a certain hat at 2:08 minutes in!


Watch Radioactive Wolves on PBS. See more from Nature.

These three short films are entirely apropos of my sort of mental progression of late.  Since I finished the treetise, the culmination of over three years amassing links to articles, websites, scientific research, and photographs, I feel a faint frisson of liberation.  It seems I must now have said everything I can possibly say about pollution killing trees and other plants...and causing ecosystem collapse and wildfires and landslides and crop failure and famine (far TOO much is more like it - "longish" was how author Charles Little charitably described it, ha).
But having finished at last...or maybe because of the change of season, with the wisteria blooms wafting their intoxicating spicy perfume, and the frantic little bird trapped in the chimney flue that finally escaped to freedom, flying off until his image was swallowed in a cerulean spring sky, and the blackhaw viburnum, although lacking quite the same ethereal luminescence of the disappearing dogwood, is shining with white flowerheads in the woodland, among other small miracles...I've had the unbidden but gladdening notion that it's okay to stop mourning the impending end of industrial civilization and most of all, to stop feeling personally liable for it.  The idea that life should be safe, stable, predictable, and painless is a hallucinatory dream fostered by the comfort of cheaply available fossil fuels, that incomparably potent power representing millions of years of concentrated, irreplaceable energy that has provided both a luxurious cushion and the assurance of our self-destruction.
To acknowledge in full that ultimately, eventually, in some configuration or other the converging catastrophes will overwhelm the past centuries of perpetual momentum blindly chasing ever greater expansion, is to suffer the unmistakable burden of a curse, without any redeeming value in the foreknowledge.  It can't be useful, because there's no way to prepare for a collapse that could be initiated at any time, from any number of instigations; and which will, because it's never happened at this global scale, proceed with a capriciously volatile trajectory and direction.  You can't store enough freeze-dried food to last forever.  You can't for eternity fend off hordes of heavily armed zombies, desperate, with nothing left to lose.
Pre-traumatic stress syndrome has its place and is unavoidable to a point - but then, it's time to recognize the inevitable triumph of the most basic and suicidal of human traits, and accept it.  We're not going to voluntarily slow the growth of our population.  We're not going to reduce our standard of living so that people in poor countries can catch up to the wealthy, or even so that our own grandchildren will have a bowl of gruel to eat.  There is never going to be a source, or conglomerate of sources, of energy equivalent to fossil fuels, not to mention there exist no substitutes for many other non-renewable, essential resources required to perpetuate life as we expect it to be.  And there is no stopping the amplifying feedbacks to climate change, and no predicting what horrifically unmanageable violent weather will be spawned from the initial forcings that are already well beyond recall.
But it is possible perhaps to reconcile the instinctive recoil from this soul-crushing glimpse into the abyss, in spite of the imprint permanently tattooed, with finding joy in living day to day.  The best we can do is cherish every minute of precious life we have got, savor each morsel of food, disseminate love...and be reverent towards any remnant of nature's glorious bounty that remains, even if it's a tragic reminder of the banquet we have squandered.  To the extent this serenity can be achieved, being a Cassandra is not a curse after all, it is a gift.  Carpe diem and all that.
I'm not going to stop blogging, or grieving for trees - and all the creatures that need them for food and habitat.  But if I'm lucky I will do so with a new insouciance.  I'm also not going to stop fighting to thwart the colossal assholes murderers who deliberately manipulate the conduits of information to obscure any prospect that people could see the truth and make an informed decision to transition to a sustainable society.  So I'm headed to New York, where a clutch of noble souls have been taking turns Occupying the Wall Street sidewalk and steps to Federal Hall for the past week, where I'll do my shift.  Presuming all goes well, then I'll meet up with the Environmental Working Group later in the afternoon to see what special tribute to Mother Earth we can concoct for May Day.  Beyond that, it looks like there is to be big push shaping up to promote a national gathering in Philadelphia over July 4, which by then most likely will be hotter than hell, and meanwhile, the efforts of democratic party operatives to co-opt the movement will relentlessly intensify.



Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Mirage of Victory

The mysterious "Insider" has published the most damning exposé so far of complicity between the big green NGO's and the Democratic party in today's CounterPunch.
Captain Ozone - full video
We don't know if he (or she) dashes into phone booths to switch from superhero garb into a bespoke tailored suit, but one thing is certain - with "Manufactured Dissent", Insider has dissected the Tar Sands Action "victory" in a very uncomfortable way.  You should definitely go to that source and read every bit of this indictment, which ends:

"Activist John Stauber, author of the aforementioned “Toxic Sludge is Good for You,” weighed in on the manner, telling The Insider,
'Martin Luther King must be turning in his grave.  The much-hyped victory for civil disobedience at the White House claimed by 350.org last November is a mirage. Rather than civil disobedience, it looks now like civil obedience, pursuing the goal that President Obama smell like an Earth Day rose for his heroic stand against the XL Pipeline. The commentators in the mainstream corporate media never bought the progressive liberal hype flooding the blogosphere and media from Democracy Now! to The Nation. The crusty corporate media observers knew at the time that Obama was simply signaling that in 2013 he would be approving XL. Connecting the dots, as 350.org likes to say, it’s clear that the XL victory was a setup of epic proportions.'
Stauber continued,
'The truth is that real non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful strategy and tactic in the hands of a genuine, transparent movement of grassroots organizers. But both 350.org and its cousin The 99 Spring are driven by invisible funders with their own financial and political agenda who supply the money to do the organizing.'
The jig’s up, says Stauber, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
'I would love to see the real people who have bought the hype and taken these civil disobedience trainings, and who have gone through the arrests, rise up and seize control of their own movement.'
Genuine movements come from the grassroots, not the invisible patronage of millionaires and billionaires. As the old adage goes, 'You live and you learn.'”
Fortunately there is a place where real people - even people who haven't acquired the taste for pepper spray - can rise up and seize control of our own movement - and it starts with the Occupy Wall Street General Strike on May 1.  Watch Lee Camp's Call to Action and then if you like, you can join his site and be a MOC like me!


 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Democratic Despots

Last night I was looking on the intertubes for a contact for Chris Hedges, because I have a question I want to ask him about the burning debate over two competing Occupies planned for Philadelphia this summer, over the July Fourth holiday.  I'm excited about participating, because it's close enough I can get there without too much travel and expense - and there is the potential for something historic to emerge.  But, I'm somewhat torn between the relative value of the events, whose sponsors are contentious.  I can see merit in each, so I am curious about his opinion, which I greatly respect.
I eventually located an address for him, but not before one reference led to a forum on the Democratic Underground website.  I thought to myself, ah ha! - what an excellent place to initiate a discussion with left-leaning liberal types who might be receptive to learning about how trees are dying from ozone pollution.  But first, it's necessary to register and set up a profile...and after all that, I found I still couldn't introduce a new topic until I had posted some (unspecified) number of comments on existing threads.  Sigh.  So I started.
I found this Earth Day comic, so I began chatting on that message board, about the sixth-grade doomer contest.  WELL, somebody mentioned how many wonderful things Obama has done for the environment, and I responded that I was disillusioned with our so-called democracy, and that he had actually reneged on his campaign promises - to the extent that nothing meaningful has been done to slow emissions, certainly nothing near what would be required to save us from climatic perdition and ecocide.  It became a lengthy discussion - and then suddenly I was informed, that nobody at the Democratic Underground is allowed to say anything negative about Democrats, certainly not during an election year.
I tried to explain that I honestly hadn't realized there was any prohibition - for one thing, the Hedges comment that originally brought me to their site was his opinion that Ralph Nader was the only candidate worth supporting the last time around!  By then I admit I was wondering, since when is the term "underground" not intended to be taken as meaning subversive and radical?  Perhaps I'm revealing my age.  Is their name referencing the London subway system?  The illegal economy?  The French Resistance in WWII?  But it was getting late so I went to bed, thinking I would revisit the site this morning.

Here's the notice waiting for me when I refreshed the page:

Not only that, but almost the entire conversation had vanished!  All that remains (assuming that isn't scrubbed soon too) are the friendly hello's and welcome's, and none of the substance of the debate about the efficacy of the two-party hegemony in the US.  Anything I wrote about it is gone entirely, and the other people's comments back to me have been "edited".  I wish I had copied it all, but I never expected a reaction so draconian since it wasn't a hostile screaming match, or anything even close.

As instructed by the above message, I clicked on Terms of Service, and was more than slightly appalled.

The instructions are couched in deceptively cheery terms (the entire site is loaded with those stupid round yellow emoticons that became monotonous years ago) but the unmistakeable warning is that any dissent will be ruthlessly "moderated" by ham-fisted dictators.  It's as though the participants in the forums have to be protected from any non-party-line-speak because it would spoil the positive ambience.  No wonder the Occupiers are suspicious of party politics, and worry about cooptation of the 99% revolution by MoveOn and other front groups for the Democrats like the Center for American Progress, whose articles are cited as authoritative with biblical reverence.
I suspect many people that join sites like Democratic Underground and MoveOn are blissfully unaware of the malignant mind tyranny that inhibits and controls any hint of independent thinking.  It's reminiscent of the innocent ignorance of donors to the BINGO's - the Big Non-Governmental Organizations (otherwise known as Gang Greens), who genuinely believe their contributions are saving endangered species and rescuing a habitable climate, when in reality, they are simply propping up the endowment from whence the salaries of the professional activists derive.

This was NOT a nice way to wake up, and I have family obligations that will happily supersede, at least temporarily for the rest of the day, any more fretting about the futility of disputing the fascist oligarchy into which America has degenerated.
Blame Bill Hicks for the Tyranny of the Stupid - a full length, incredibly dumb, hysterically funny movie!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Sixth Grade Earth Day Doomer Contest

This is the annual re-post, originally published in 2010:

I did not realize this before, but every year the upscale supermarket King's, in Bernardsville, sponsors a competition.

In honor of Earth Day, members of the local 6th grade class decorate brown paper grocery bags with pictures around a theme they select, about which they also write an essay, which is stapled to the back of the bag.

There were too many entries to look at each of them, they lined the produce and dairy sections.
I was shocked at the gloominess of the images and essays.
These kids seem to be even more pessimistic than me!
I think you can see what they say especially if you click on the photograph.
Sentiments like "We were Given One Chance: Our Earth, And Now We Are About to Ruin It" and "We started this mess, We have to fix it" seem like a terrible burden on a child,
and I suspect once these kids get old enough to understand that it was not them, but rather their parents and grandparents
who started this mess and, for the most part, are refusing to sacrifice in the least to fix it
they are going to be quite justifiably furious that it is their elders who have ruined it for them.
I wonder how much of this permeates discussion around the dinner table at home.
The children obviously understand how dire our predicament is.
But do their parents? Maybe they don't have dinner at the table; maybe they're all watching the teevee.
At any rate, I don't see anything like this level of engagement reflected in the adult community.
There are no seminars, book group discussions, library displays...no debate in town governments about the enormity of our collapsing ecosystem and what we should be doing about it. I wrote to every single elected official and department of my township that had anything remotely to do with parks, trees, public health etc., and received not a single reply.
Considering the urgent need to convert to clean, renewable energy, there are almost no articles or editorials or letters in the local papers about climate change from CO2 emissions, - let alone the toxic greenhouse gases that cause ozone and kill trees. In fact, I wrote a letter to the Editor of the Bernardsville News and they refused to print it. Even more astounding, local conservation groups - URWA, NJ Conservation Society, the Willowwood Foundation, the Doris Duke Foundation - assiduously ignore and downplay the gravity of climate change impacts on the environment, even though enhancing and protecting the environment is the ostensible purpose of their existence.
Of course this last depiction of vanishing trees had my vote.
The essays were even more startling. They should be legible when enlarged and I highly recommend them.
I wish I had got more, but I could only read these few that I photographed and posted here.
They are too bleak and plaintive...heartbreaking.
Were any of the shoppers snapping up gourmet items imported across oceans cognizant of the irony?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Magical Thinking and the Draconian Experiment

Yesterday on Ira Flatow's NPR radio program, Science Friday, I heard an interview with James Cameron, the movie director who has just returned from a deep-sea expedition.  He answered questions about the status of ocean health, along with Sylvia Earle, Oceanographer, and John McCosker, Chair of Aquatic Biology Studies at the California Academy of Sciences.  You can listen to it from the link above - or read some excerpts below.  I transcribed the parts that really made me fume...what else can a girl do?

Speaking of depths, the absurdity of delusion apparent in this lengthy, mournful discussion was almost burlesque.  As more factual information emerged during the exchange, it became increasingly clear despite their best efforts that the oceans are pretty well ruined, especially if we continue in our current path of overfishing, pollution and globalization, which we most certainly will.  The panel made valiant attempts to gloss over their dismal diagnosis by simultaneously calling for more money so we can "understand" the unexplored regions, before we demolish the food chain past any chance of recovery.  Talk about anthropomorphism!  Some variant of "understand" was repeated well over a dozen times, I lost track.  Because if we humans "understand" the oceans, and what we're doing to them, then somehow that is expected to inspire us to stop.

Here's the critical missing element.  The oceans don't need us to understand anything more about them.  We already know plenty about acidification, coral bleaching, collapsing food chains, the plastic garbage patches, the ravages of international shipping, military operations, and coastal eutrophication from nitrogen over-fertilization.  What Earth's tormented oceans need is for humans to stop our megalomaniacal crusade to fill them with the abominable excrement of our industrialized civilization...like the emissions from Cameron's next air flight  - for which he was excused early, after the first segment.

But it's ever so much more rewarding to research and lament this scourge than to actually address our culpability, never mind elucidate the drastic, painful sacrifices required from developed nations to even approach a meaningful solution - like reducing our consumption, travel, and population to a fraction of its current festering number.  So predictably this forum, held before a live audience in California, amounted to quite a spectacle of fawning over the fabulous celebrity among them - an obsequious chorus that assiduously avoided any hint referencing the chasm between Cameron's ostensible green credentials and his personal proclivity to make an outsize contribution to the biomassacre.

In his fancy toy ship, he ventured down to the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.  He seemed disappointed he found so little life.  "We accomplished our goals and I got to lay my eyes on the deepest spot in the ocean and kind of bear witness..but we didn't achieve all of our science goals," which he was hoping would shed light on what "astrobiologists call extremophile life".  Does anyone get the sense that Cameron is investing in technowizardry to save his ass from the imminent scourges the rest of humanity will find inescapable?
credit
Asked by Flatow if she was "jealous" of his achievement, Earle replied with breathless infatuation "I'm just in awe.  I think the success is not just going there..it was building the system and not relying on a big federal grant of some sort.  He made it happen from start to finish, including funding it by and large...National Geographic was involved, and Rolex, but that came later...but the vision and then actually doing what it takes to build the vehicle, and then fly the vehicle, then successfully make the trip...I mean, astronauts have somebody else build their spacecraft."

Even more bizarre than that Flatow would so crudely ask if she were jealous is the fact that yes, she is!

He followed up with a question about why ocean research receives so little federal funding compared to space exploration, obviously a sore point that rankles oceanographic types.

Earle chuckled ruefully and said of the ocean:  "It is our life support system.  This planet is blue and we know so little about it and we've allowed terrible things to happen to it.  The ocean is in trouble, that means we're in trouble.  And we're blissfully continuing to do dastardly things to the ocean and we don't even - we haven't made the investment in understanding what's there.  Only about 5% has been seen, let alone explored."

Flatow:  "Jim would you welcome some larger program to do this - give you a hand, or expand it?"

Cameron:  "Absolutely I think in general there's such a dearth of funds for understanding the oceans...we need to put big networks of real-time sensors out on the seafloor and lying through the water column so that we can have a sense of what's happening in the ocean in closer to real time.  I mean we get little bits of data from here and there and we try to piece it together and understand it, but you know you could take a picture of the whole earth from orbit and the meteorologist can figure out what's happening in the atmosphere - we don't have anything like that for the ocean.  If we're going to understand the impacts of climate change, we're going to understand the pollution and overfishing and all the things that are threatening the ocean, we need to dump money into this issue...look, I have a foot in both communities the space camp and in the ocean camp."

"But, if I had to choose between the two I agree completely the ocean is our life support system and we're impacting it very, very deeply.  I'm just afraid that we won't understand it before we've destroyed it.  So we need research and we need improvements in technology and not just in the offshore oil and gas business but in research and predictive modeling."

Okay seriously, he thinks he understands that the oceans are threatened but somehow espouses the fantasy that "...improvements in technology...in the offshore oil and gas business..." are part of the solution??

McCosker cannot resist jumping on the Cameron love-train and chimes in with praise:  "It is so remarkable what Jim has accomplished - not only the getting to the bottom but in coming back," (laughter) - and then gets to the heart of the matter, the reason for unfair favoritism for space funding over the oceans (he really needn't worry - our bankrupt economy isn't going to be giving much to NASA and NOAA anymore either):

"Unfortunate luck...and very good PR on behalf of the space missions.  However tourists are getting beneath in submersibles and understanding how complicated and how incredible this zone is and how little we know about it.  So I'm hoping that the tide will turn - pardon me - and we will have enough public interest in the oceans particularly as we're running out of what used to live in the ocean, and we begin to understand that certain system services, that all those creatures provide us."

Tourists in submersibles...that's a hopeful sign?  This reminds me of ski resort owners moaning that climate change is reducing snow pack so they are losing patrons.  I doubt the skiers are bicycling up the mountains.  Here's another tone-deaf example:

Flatow to Cameron:  "I know you have to go and catch a flight but before you go, do you have any advice for people who'd like to stimulate more interest in the oceans?  Young people or what they might do...or how?"

Cameron:  "I would say if people are really interested in the oceans, step one is create a personal relationship with the ocean whether that's going to study or just say, learning to scuba dive.  There's no stronger or more passionate guardians of the ocean than a scuba diver who's gotten to see the wonders and diversity of ocean life and the interaction and come to an appreciation of it so I would say to people don't think about it...it's not necessarily the most remunerative thing you could possibly do with your life but it will be the most rewarding, to go and act on your dream and get to become a guardian of the ocean."

Why didn't he just tell all those resentful Occupiers with no job and thousands of dollars in student loan debt to become a Hollywood blockbuster movie director, commission a submarine, fly it to port, and then puttputt it across the Pacific?

Wouldn't you know then first thing this morning, HuffPo featured an article about Cameron and some other entrepreneurial buddies who are in a joint venture to explore outer space.


"Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and billionaire co-founder Larry Page have teamed up with "Avatar" director James Cameron and other investors to back an ambitious space exploration and natural resources venture, details of which will be unveiled next week."

"The fledgling company, called Planetary Resources, will be unveiled at a Tuesday news conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, according to a press release issued this week."

"Aside from naming some of the company's high-profile backers, the press release disclosed tantalizingly few details, saying only that the company will combine the sectors of 'space exploration and natural resources' in a venture that could add 'trillions of dollars to the global GDP.' The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Planetary Resources will explore the feasibility of mining natural resources from asteroids, a decades-old concept."

"This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of 'natural resources,'" according to the press release.

"Planetary Resource was co-founded by Eric Anderson, a former NASA Mars mission manager, and Peter Diamandis, the commercial space entrepreneur behind the X-Prize, a competition that offered $10 million to a group that launched a reusable manned spacecraft. Other notable investors include Charles Simonyi, a former top executive at Microsoft, and K. Ram Shriram, a Google director.'"

The Wall Street Journal version has more, which can only be disappointing to Drs. Earle and McCoster, because although Cameron claimed to have a foot each in the space and ocean camps, it looks like there's a lot more backing - and potential profit perhaps? - in space exploration:

"In recent years, as NASA has pulled back on space exploration, wealthy entrepreneurs such as Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, Tesla Motors Inc. creator Elon Musk and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen have tried to fill the void with their personal money. Mr. Musk has pursued commercial rockets and spacecraft to transport cargo and astronauts into orbit, while Messrs. Allen and Bezos have looked to launch tourists to the edge of space and possibly beyond."

But getting back to our Science Friday interview, after Cameron took his leave, Earle described how she was awarded a wish, as part of winning a TED prize in 2009.  Her idea was to get "some brainy people together and brainstorm about what we could do about the oceans"...and the mission?  To go to the Galapagos Islands!  In seeming surprise, she added  "...just after getting back what happened?  April 20th, the big blowout in the Gulf of Mexico - which was a wakeup call for those of us who care about the ocean, that in such a short period of time we can change the nature of a big body of water like the Gulf of Mexico."

Well, unless this group of brainiacs sailed to the Galapagos in the same sort of conveyance as Darwin in 1835, then some of that sort of deep sea drilling is what powered their junket.

A member of the audience asked, what can an ordinary person do?  With touching sentimentality, Earle recommended using whatever talent you possess - singing, or math - while McCoster suggested wistfully that kids can be a great force:

"Like Sylvia, I travel around the world talking to kids...talk to fishery laboratories, and they're feeling a lot of pressure now from young kids who aren't going to put up with what we are turning over to them so I'm hopeful...I'm not extremely optimistic about the future but I'm hopeful..because the kids are going to turn this around, and now with social media we can't let anything slip by."

I gather then it's up to the kids to hold their elders to task...the ones that are flying around the world.

Earle can't resist one last accolade for Cameron, in absentia, even though he was probably in a limo his helicopter on the way from his 8000 sf mansion to his private jet:

"Speaking for Jim Cameron, who said that he lamented that his direct dive was not more focused on taking care of the place, if you will...and yet I think his approach to explore, to peel back the layers of the unknown, is one of the most important things that we can do.  Ignorance is killing us - Knowing is the key...".

What if anything his vainglorious, self-aggrandizing jaunt contributed to scientific knowledge, particularly considering the expenditure in terms of money, energy and resources, has yet to be elaborated upon, but oh well.

A member of the audience said she wanted to "inject a little hope" and asked what the major NGO's are doing.

Earle of course cannot be accused of negativity (never mind that worse sin, alarmism), so she said reassuringly:  "Well there is plenty of reason for hope and I think it starts with knowing that the ocean is in trouble, and knowing that it matters that the ocean is in trouble...that the ocean governs the way the world works.  If you like to breathe you will care about the ocean.  If you like water that magically falls out of the sky you will care about the ocean.  You don't have to touch the ocean yourself for the ocean to touch you."

After an almost audible gulp, she continued more slowly, "Knowing that, it is perplexing that it's taking us so long to take action.  Our perception that the ocean is so big, so vast we don't have to worry about it, it'll take care of itself, persists.  It's there in the way that we treat the ocean, what we put in, what we take out..."

I think she intended for her mention - that all of one percent of the ocean has been designated "protected areas" - to be encouraging, but it is hard to spin it that way, especially because even those protected areas are not exactly completely immune from influence, despite their status.  Her forlorn "...it is perplexing" is the same astonished disbelief that climate scientists have been expressing as well.  If you make it excruciatingly evident that much of the world is going to become uninhabitable, wouldn't you think the governments would respond with appropriate policies?

When asked about whether she eats seafood, she said she "...stopped long ago.  I know too much."  She advised to eat "low on the food chain" - plants, because even farmed fish are "like a funnel"...so much goes into it compared to what you get out.

McCosker bumbled through a feeble justification for continuing to eat "sustainable" fish (even though Earle had just made it clear there is no such thing) while zealously ignoring even his own unequivocal statement, that when life is removed from the sea it is not only significant because of the reduction in absolute numbers available for human food, but also because it disrupts an essential balance in the ecosystem.  By way of example he mentioned almost in passing that sharks are gone.

Flatow interjected, incredulous:  "Sharks are GONE?"

McCosker: "...there's less than 10%..."

Flatow, a bit shrilly:  "NINETY percent are GONE??"

Bob, affirmatively:  "In my lifetime....now, it's because of the increasing wealth of the Chinese economy and sharkfin soup....It's amazing how few sharks remain in the world's oceans...as many as 73 million are killed every year so their fins can be chopped off."

 

The sensational cognitive dissonance between the research community's agenda is well illustrated in the following passages from Michael Donnelly's article, "When Environmentalists Collaborate" published in Counter Punch, in which he described the proceedings at last month's 30th annual "Public Interest Environmental Law Conference" (E-LAW):

"Disconnect
Obviouslyone of the issues with huge Climate Change impact that is never addressed by this nor any other eco-confab is the huge Eco-cost of Jet Flying in this age of Skype. Assembling a large face-to-face gathering such as this with people from all over the country and planet, cannot be done (at least not the way it is done) without there being huge transportation-related environmental costs. And, E-LAW is but one of dozens of such annual eco-gatherings. Boards and staffs of groups like the Sierra Club, TWS, CBD, et al., jet to one fabulous destination after another for multi-meetings per year, when they aren’t flying to and from DC. Paid enviros likely rack up more frequent flyer miles than any profession other than politicians."

"Jet flying contributes some 3.5% of all greenhouse gasses to the air. That’s a low-ball estimate and its Global Warming impact has to be multiplied by a factor of at least 155% as the damage is greater when the carbon is released high in the atmosphere. It may “only” be 3.5%, but it is the fastest growing contributor to Climate Change. And, it is THE single top personal, unnecessary contribution to Climate Change; killing the planet more in a few hours than all one could save in a year of recycling, bicycling, driving a Pius, E-LAW refusing to serve imported java in throw-away cups, etc. combined!  One trip across the country and back spews as much carbon per person as driving an SUV for two years. Every one of the E-LAW panelists, as do most Americans, consumes more carbon in a year than the average human will in her lifetime. Talk about your 1%!"

"I’ll predict right now that in ten years E-LAW will feature panels on Abolition of Jet Flying to save the planet. The sad fact is; not even self-declared Greens will give up Darth Cheney’s “Non-negotiable American Way of Life.” As a fellow activist recently noted; “That those who claim to care about fossil fuel abuse and climate will not give flying up, tells you all you need to know about why the other side doesn’t believe us and why we will never win. The right does what they want without shame; we do what we want with shame, and then kick dirt on it like a kitty that just went in its own backyard. It stinks and is destroying the world either way.”

I kind of think it's highly unlikely there will be any E-LAW ten years from now.  I suspect by then it will be quite clear that the planet is well past saving, and plus so few people, if anyone, will have the option of flying on jets that it certainly won't be the topic of a panel discussion.  But to address his main point, abbreviated as:  those environmentalists who will not give up flying tells you all you need to know about why we will never win.  I cannot deny the veracity of that.  Of course I do realize that we all make compromises, so singling out the scientists, radio personalities, and wealthy media darlings for condemnation of their outsized carbon footprint can be construed as tossing rocks while living in a glass house.  And I'm the first to admit that my house possesses an even larger proportion of glass than most.

However, I'm not a leader, a public figure, or a scientist - I haven't got a radio show, I command no attention, Barack Obama doesn't answer my phone calls.  Aren't we supposed to expect a little more from people who hold themselves up as role models and/or want public tax money to fund their studies?  Compare the frivolity and futility of the prescriptions from Ira, Jim, Sylvia and Bob with the words of young Tim DeChristopher, from an interview by Terry Williams in Orion Magazine titled "What Love Looks Like".  Tim is still in jail for disrupting a US Bureau of Land Management auction of drilling rights on public land - which was later declared illegal.


TERRY: In personal terms, your life has been in limbo for the last two years. And that’s my word, not yours. But is it fair to say you haven’t known what your future is going to be? Because you didn’t know when you were going to go to trial, or whether you’d be convicted. How has that felt?

TIM: I think part of what empowered me to take that leap and have that insecurity was that I already felt that insecurity. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. My future was already lost.

TERRY: Coming out of college?

TIM: No. Realizing how fucked we are in our future.

TERRY: In terms of climate change.

TIM: Yeah. I met Terry Root, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, at the Stegner Symposium at the University of Utah. She presented all the IPCC data, and I went up to her afterwards and said, “That graph that you showed, with the possible emission scenarios in the twenty-first century? It looked like the best case was that carbon peaked around 2030 and started coming back down.” She said, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I said, “But didn’t the report that you guys just put out say that if we didn’t peak by 2015 and then start coming back down that we were pretty much all screwed, and we wouldn’t even recognize the planet?” And she said, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I said: “So, what am I missing? It seems like you guys are saying there’s no way we can make it.” And she said, “You’re not missing anything. There are things we could have done in the ’80s, there are some things we could have done in the ’90s—but it’s probably too late to avoid any of the worst-case scenarios that we’re talking about.” And she literally put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry my generation failed yours.” That was shattering to me.

TERRY: When was this?

TIM: This was in March of 2008. And I said, “You just gave a speech to four hundred people and you didn’t say anything like that. Why aren’t you telling people this?” And she said, “Oh, I don’t want to scare people into paralysis. I feel like if I told people the truth, people would just give up.” And I talked to her a couple years later, and she’s still not telling people the truth. But with me, it did the exact opposite. Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future, there’s no hope for me to have anything my parents or grandparents would have considered a normal future—of a career and a retirement and all that stuff—I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back. Because it was all going to be lost anyway."

In a surfeit of ironic blasphemy, President Obama yesterday signed tomorrow's Earth Day Proclamation, grandly declaring:


"Today, our air and water are cleaner, pollution has been greatly reduced, and Americans everywhere are living in a healthier environment."

"As we reflect on that historic day of activism and stewardship, let us embrace our commitment to the generations yet to come by leaving them a safe, clean world on which to make their mark."

Unfortunately, that is far from true.  Would it be too much to say it is a lie?  Here's the blurb for a book published in May 2010:

"Philip Shabecoff was the chief environmental correspondent for The New York Times for fourteen of the thirty-two years he worked there as a reporter.  Poisoned for Profit, based on more than five years of investigative research and reporting, reveals the cumulative scientific evidence connecting the massive increase in environmental poisons to the epidemic of disability, disease, and dysfunction among our nation´s children."

And how's that Gulf Oil Spill cleanup going two years on?  The rest is an article about that - the very last quote will no doubt be reassuring.  Enjoy the weekend and wear green for Earth Day tomorrow!

Seafood Deformities Alarm Scientists [note: it the FOOD part that's alarming - OUR food!]

Gulf of Mexico fishermen, scientists and seafood processors have told Al Jazeera they are finding disturbing numbers of mutated shrimp, crab and fish that they believe are deformed by chemicals released during BP's 2010 oil disaster. 

Along with collapsing fisheries, signs of malignant impact on the regional ecosystem are ominous: horribly mutated shrimp, fish with oozing sores, underdeveloped blue crabs lacking claws, eyeless crabs and shrimp - and interviewees' fingers point towards BP's oil pollution disaster as being the cause.

…On Apr. 20, 2010, the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded, triggering the release of at least 4.9 million barrels of oil. BP then used at least 1.9 million gallons of toxic Corexit dispersants to sink the oil. 

Keath Ladner, a third-generation seafood processor in Hancock County, Mississippi, is also disturbed by what he is seeing. 

"I've seen the brown shrimp catch drop by two-thirds, and so far the white shrimp have been wiped out," Ladner told Al Jazeera. "The shrimp are immune-compromised. We are finding shrimp with tumours on their heads, and are seeing this everyday." 

While on a shrimp boat in Mobile Bay with Sidney Schwartz, the fourth-generation fisherman said that he had seen shrimp with defects on their gills, and "their shells missing around their gills and head." 

"We've fished here all our lives and have never seen anything like this," he added. 

Ladner has also seen crates of blue crabs, all of which were lacking at least one of their claws. 

Darla Rooks from Port Sulphur, Louisiana told Al Jazeera she is finding crabs "with holes in their shells, shells with all the points burned off so all the spikes on their shells and claws are gone, misshapen shells, and crabs that are dying from within … they are still alive, but you open them up and they smell like they've been dead for a week". 

Rooks is also finding eyeless shrimp, shrimp with abnormal growths, female shrimp with their babies still attached to them, and shrimp with oiled gills. 

"We also seeing eyeless fish, and fish lacking even eye-sockets, and fish with lesions, fish without covers over their gills, and others with large pink masses hanging off their eyes and gills." 

Rooks, who grew up fishing with her parents, said she had never seen such things in these waters, and her seafood catch last year was "ten per cent what it normally is." 

"I've never seen this," she said, a statement Al Jazeera heard from every scientist, fisherperson, and seafood processor consulted about the seafood deformities. 

The Gulf of Mexico provides more than 40 per cent of all the seafood caught in the continental United States. 

BP's chemicals? 

"The dispersants used in BP's draconian experiment contain solvents, such as petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol. Solvents dissolve oil, grease and rubber," Riki Ott, a toxicologist, marine biologist and Exxon Valdez survivor, told Al Jazeera. "It should be no surprise that solvents are also notoriously toxic to people, something the medical community has long known." 

The dispersants are known to be mutagenic, a disturbing fact that could be evidenced in the seafood deformities. Shrimp, for example, have a life cycle short enough that two to three generations have existed since BP's disaster began, giving the chemicals time to enter the genome. 

Pathways of exposure to the dispersants are inhalation, ingestion, skin, and eye contact. Health impacts can include headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, chest pains, respiratory system damage, skin sensitisation, hypertension, central nervous system depression, neurotoxic effects, cardiac arrhythmia and cardiovascular damage. They are also teratogenic - able to disturb the growth and development of an embryo or foetus - and carcinogenic. 

Cowan believes chemicals named polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), released from BP's submerged oil, are likely to blame for what he is finding, due to the fact that the fish with lesions are from "a wide spatial distribution that is spatially coordinated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon, both surface oil and subsurface oil. A lot of the oil that impacted Louisiana was also in subsurface plumes, and we think there is a lot of it remaining on the seafloor." 

Marine scientist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia published results of her submarine dives around the source area of BP's oil disaster in the Nature Geoscience journal. 

Her evidence showed massive swathes of oil covering the seafloor, including photos of oil-covered bottom dwelling sea creatures. 

While showing slides at an American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington, Joye said: "This is Macondo oil on the bottom. These are dead organisms because of oil being deposited on their heads." Macondo is the well that ruptured in the BP accident. 

Wilma Subra, a chemist and Macarthur Fellow, has conducted tests on seafood and sediment samples along the Gulf for chemicals present in BP's crude oil and toxic dispersants. 

"Tests have shown significant levels of oil pollution in oysters and crabs along the Louisiana coastline," Subra told Al Jazeera. "We have also found high levels of hydrocarbons in the soil and vegetation." 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PAHs "are a group of semi-volatile organic compounds that are present in crude oil that has spent time in the ocean and eventually reaches shore, and can be formed when oil is burned." 

Cowan explained: "The fish are being exposed to PAHs, and I was able to find several references that list the same symptoms in fish after the Exxon Valdez spill, as well as in lab experiments. There was also a paper published by some LSU scientists that PAH exposure has effects on the genome." 

The University of South Florida released the results of a survey whose findings corresponded with Cowan's: a two to five per cent infection rate in the same oil impact areas, and not just with red snapper, but with more than 20 species of fish with lesions. In many locations, 20 per cent of the fish had lesions, and later sampling expeditions found areas where, alarmingly, 50 per cent of the fish had them. 

"I asked a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) sampler what percentage of fish they find with sores prior to 2010, and it's one-tenth of one percent," Cowan said. "Which is what we found prior to 2010 as well. But nothing like we've seen with these secondary infections and at this high of rate since the spill. 

"What we think is that it's attributable to chronic exposure to PAHs released in the process of weathering of oil on the seafloor," Cowan said. "There's no other thing we can use to explain this phenomenon. We've never seen anything like this before." 

Official response 

Questions raised by Al Jazeera's investigation remain largely unanswered. 

Al Jazeera contacted the office of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who provided a statement that said the state continues to test its waters for oil and dispersants, and that it is testing for PAHs. 

"Gulf seafood has consistently tested lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA for the levels of oil and dispersant contamination that would pose a risk to human health," the statement reads. "Louisiana seafood continues to go through extensive testing to ensure that seafood is safe for human consumption. More than 3,000 composite samples of seafood, sediment and water have been tested in Louisiana since the start of the spill." 

At the federal government level, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the EPA - both federal agencies which have powers in this area - insisted Al Jazeera talk with the NOAA. 

But the NOAA won't comment to the media because of its involvement in collecting information for an ongoing lawsuit against BP. 

BP refused Al Jazeera's request to comment on this issue for a television interview, but provided a statement that read: 

"Seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is among the most tested in the world, and, according to the FDA and NOAA, it is as safe now as it was before the accident." 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pillage, Plunder & Pollute, LLC

My "treetise", which has been accepted for publication in the new magazine from the Coming Crisis website that will debut next month, can be downloaded today(!) from DropBox as a pdf.  The subtitle is:  A Global Glut of Invisible Trace Gases is Destroying Life on Earth.  [Update:  for people who are having trouble downloading the pdf or just want a paperback copy, it is available now too(!) and can be ordered by clicking here.  NO guarantees as to quality of printing, I have only seen an online proof.  But it looks okay.]


The painting on the cover is Bruegel's "Fall of Icarus".  It seems like such a simple depiction of the myth, and I was surprised to learn that its most minor attribute is infused with fulsome meaning.  In Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's “Fall of Icarus” (link) Robert Baldwin elucidates a richly textured and erudite analysis.  The entire essay is a delight to read - following are some excerpts that I particularly liked (no quote marks - everything that follows is from Baldwin's work)

**********************************


Bruegel's paintings of the Seasons and his Fall of Icarus celebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature. This view of peasants is particularly clear in the Icarus where the sweeping panorama is anchored around the heroic figure of the plowman.

To date, no scholar has explored the Good Plowman theme and its importance in sixteenth-century Northern art. To do so will allow a more balanced understanding of Bruegel's peasants and a richer sense of the Icarus as a mythological image phrased in vernacular terms.

The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity...

Virgil's account offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful, moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of
city dwellers seeking “kingdoms doomed to fall”.7 Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral country life to the present immorality of cities.

Virtuous plowing found its most common expression in sixteenth-century Netherlandish art in allegories of Peace, Diligence, and Hope. The peaceful plowman, of course, developed from the prophecized beating of “swords into plowshares” and the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Prince of Peace. Interwoven with this was a classical tradition of agricultural abundance and pastoral harmony as images of peace.

If diligence, good works, and obedience were qualities associated with plowing, hope was equally important, drawing of I Cor. 9-10: “he that ploweth should plow with hope”.

Beyond peace, diligence, and hope, plowing could also be used to symbolize prudence, as in the rear of Bruegel's engraving of that virtue.

Seen from this perspective, the plowman in Bruegel's Fall of Icarus takes on a richer, sharper contrast to Icarus than has previously been noted. If Icarus' flight towards the heavens results in a fatal plunge to the earth, the plowman's earthbound labors lead him to eternal life in heaven.

As scholars have noted, the Icarus borrowed its plowman, fisherman, shepherd, and partridge from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Lucian, whose works were well known to the Renaissance, cited Icarus twice as an example of foolish ambition and pride.  He was the only classical author to describe an Icarus “falling head first into deep waters”.  Perhaps then he was the source for Bruegel's unprecedented choice of a drowning rather than falling Icarus, his head submerged beneath the sea.

In the Oedipus, similar nautical metaphors for moderation introduce the Icarian example.

"Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds... May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; my life bear me on safely, running in middle course. While, in fear of the Cretan king, madly the lad sought the stars, in strange devices trusting, and strove to vanquish true birds in flight…"

From Ovid, Dio, Lucian, and Seneca, the Icarian myth became a Medieval and
Renaissance moral topos, showing the dangers of excess, political or philosophical ambition, pride, self-deception, and ignorance of natural orders in general.

…the self-deception of Icarus is remedied only by self-knowledge, by a sense of one's true limitations and proper place in the wider orders of society and nature. Moderation, in short, is inseparable from self-knowledge.

In Bruegel's painted as well as engraved Icarus, death and damnation are the price for ambition and self-deception.

Presumably this is why he abandoned iconographic tradition by painting Icarus drowning rather than falling. If the print used a cross to imply deliverance from the whale, the painting chose another familiar metaphor of salvation, the harbor-bound ship, also seen in Bruegel's Hope.

Bruegel's ship, for example, sails past the watery grave of Icarus, its sailors as absorbed in their mission of reaching the harbor as is the plowman in his earthly work. While serving as a metaphor for salvation and Senecan moderation, the boat presents a simpler visual contrast to Icarus. For sailors utilize air and water in a sensible manner to get on with the business of life.

Icarus' unnatural flying, already remarked by Ovid and Dio Chrysostom, is followed by an equally unnatural and iconographically unusual thrashing in the water where he proves no better as a fish. Bruegel developed further watery contrasts with Icarus through the nearby fisherman who also makes good use of the sea.

With respect to the element of air, Icarus' head was submerged beneath the waves, shut off from the breath of life.

More importantly, Bruegel juxtaposed Icarus' falling feathers with the ship's wind-filled sails.  This prudent use of air was strengthened by the sail trimming needed as the ship nears the dangerous rocky shore. This contrast between unnatural and natural air technology, feathers, and sails, acquired greater irony in the context of Pliny's statement that Icarus invented sails and sailing.

If various activities relating to earth, air, and water were stressed visually in Bruegel's Icarus, the importance of fire emerged in the iconographically unusual setting sun.

"…the hot sun in Bruegel's Icarus brings fertile crops and life to the farmer, but death to Icarus. The introduction of a setting sun may also suggest the timeless cycles of a golden age and a natural order indifferent to folly. See thus, the whole picture emerges as a cosmological panorama which goes on with its elemental rhythms, its husbandry and commerce, its life and death, its labor and folly, until the final day when those who have “plowed diligently” enter the harbor of God's kingdom.

In the Praise of Folly, Folly celebrated Phythagoras who “came to the conclusion that no creature is more miserable than man; for all the others are satisfied with their natural limitations, but man alone strives to go beyond the bounds proper to his station”.  In the early days of history, before folly reigned, mankind had too much piety to search out, with a profane curiosity, the secrets of nature; to investigate the dimensions, motions, and influences of the stars, or the hidden causes of things; deeming it a sacrilege for mortal man to try to know more than is proper to his station. This madness of inquiring what may lie beyond the sky never entered their heads.

We have seen this Icarian violation of nature's laws Ovid where wings were a rash attempt to “change man's very nature”. Perhaps inspired by this phrase, Bruegel combined his own landscape talents and humanistic interests to develop an unprecedented cosmological Icarus, an Icarus exploring the nature of human nature.


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