Monday, November 24, 2014

A Reason to be Optimistic

The weather is creepy...we had frost for several days, and now it is almost 70 degrees (F). 
 All the leaves are down, except for a few oaks.  This is a sycamore leaf I picked up off the ground, from one of several trees I planted about 10 years ago.  They are about 25 feet high now.
One of the reasons, besides their dappled bark and reflective white branches, that I have always loved sycamores is their giant leaves, which I recall as being as big as dinner plates.  For quite a while now, they haven't been as large -  like the one on the top, and most even smaller, like this one:
This week, I found two that were throwbacks - this leaf is smothers the same plate!  It's all very curious and part of our ongoing, accelerating ecosystem collapse.
It doesn't matter anymore though, if it ever did, that ozone is killing trees, because cataclysmic climate change assures mass extinction anyway, and it is ratcheting forward at a dizzying rate.  All the ferocious, pugilistic words that are spilled arguing about whether and how and why we have done this to ourselves and our lovely planet are merely keeping vigil over a dying body.  

It would seem that the secret is out.  I can't embed this video from The Newsroom, so click on this link and watch it!  It's absolutely stunning, especially the reactions of the young people as they listen, incredulous, to their death knell.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interregnum Redux

Autumn - at least, the experience of it, if not the calendared season itself - has drawn to an ignominious close around Wit's End, where the glory days of blazing foliage had their last gasp several years ago and barely made a token appearance in 2014.  Here is a baseline photo of a nearby pond, in 2010, on October 24.  At the time I thought it was diminished and dull, but compared to what has followed, it was a pinnacle of scintillating color.
 This is how it looked last October 26.
This is a maple located across the street, also October 24, 2010.
Two days earlier in the season, October 22, in 2012 it was noticeably thinner and less brilliant.
 This year it had almost nothing to show on October 26.
And is it any wonder?  Take a gander at New Jersey in this map of non-attainment, found in an excellent summary by James McCarthy from the Congressional Research Office.  The report was prepared in advance of the EPA's upcoming mandated reconsideration of air quality standards, and shows my state buried from all sides in the invisible miasma of toxic ozone.  The EPA already concluded that the standards now in effect are insufficient to protect vegetation, which makes a new study in PhysOrg of models predicting that ozone levels will be harmful by 2050 at today's rate of emissions utterly hysterical.
"Ozone affects photosynthesis, causing pigmentation on leaves, stunting growth and reducing yield," explains Dr Val Martin. "At a time when the world will need to be feeding a growing population, we need to be sure that our ability to do this isn't compromised by surface ozone. Our model shows that we may need more stringent controls of certain emissions - such as nitrogen oxides or methane - that contribute to ozone levels."

Annually I have posted extensive comparisons of "pigmented" - burnt, necrotic - and stunted foliage, but this year was so dismal that I didn't bother, other than the two above.  It's too depressing, and repetitive.  But for gluttons for punishment who missed them, following is a partial list of prior photographic studies for handy reference.

Nov. 2010 The Country Mouse Reluctantly Trains to the City
Oct. 2012 Arrested at Their Prime
Oct. 2012 Spill the Scarlet Rain
Oct. 2012 Torches of Freedom
Nov. 2012 All Lies and Jest
Nov. 2012 This Impostor
Nov. 2012 Hysteresis and the Vile Conspiracy to Blame the Bugs
Sept. 2013 And They All Fall Down
Oct. 2013 Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Rust
Oct. 2013 Smell the Earth, Taste the Rain, Hear the Sun Rise

Or presuming you are in the Northern Hemisphere, you could instead just have a look around and determine for yourself how October Glory maple trees right now compare to this 2004 calendar meticulously tracking leaf change.  Those leaves didn't fall off until November 25, and when they did, they fell almost all at once, practically overnight...prior to that, the crown was intact, there was no earlier thinning, no ugly bare branches protruding.  Notice too that when the leaves finally fell off they were still bright red on the lawn beneath, not brown.  This tree, which was growing in Metuchen, New Jersey, behaved like trees are supposed to in the autumn...but don't, anymore.
Just as was predicted by Charles Little long ago in his book, The Dying of the Trees, now that ecosystem collapse is well underway, the bone-white brackets of dogwood that once floated in spring, suspended in the forest understory like millions of feathers from the wings of angels, are nearly gone -  Cumulative damage from ozone is wiping out entire species.
Fortuitously, a talented photographer with an incredibly discerning eye decided to document the scenery of New England, in addition to his oeuvre of elegant still lives and captivating portraiture.   Michael Jermyn has graciously granted me permission to use some of his photographs to illustrate this post about the ravages of pollution on trees.  He is also a musician and often is to be found in his landscapes, lurking like a Puckishly happy, carefree jester, joyously celebrating life.
As well as capturing luscious landscapes redolent of exalted influences like, perhaps, van Gogh and Monet, he is intrigued by the decrepit, abandoned barns that punctuate the hills of Vermont, and sometimes he includes a glimpse of what he calls his alter-ego - a faceless, spectral figure in a voluminous dark overcoat, an enigmatic figure that reminds me of a more genial Charon, affably escorting us across the Styx...while diplomatically refraining from any direct reference to the juxtaposition of vibrant nature with inevitable decay.
Charon crosses the Styx ~ Manuel Balea
See what I mean?

In addition to his page on facebook, Michael's work can be found in the three books he has published so far, which can be viewed and purchased online - (1Discovering the Secret Language of Trees; and other epiphanies in black and white, (2Such a Hungry Ghost; still life and verse, and (3) my favorite, the voluptuously intense collection called Surfing the Light.
In that book he includes quotes and verses, like this one from the Moody Blues:

The trees are drawing me near -
I've got to find out why
these gentle voices I hear
explain it all with a sigh...

And so before we go any further on about overshoot and collapse and extinction and nasty stuff like that, here, with profuse gratitude to Michael both for his pictures and reminding me of Tuesday Afternoon, is a version of that song, in a concert taped in 1970 with remarkably good acoustics:

This sweetly evocative tune reminds me of how innocent that time was (or perhaps, less charitably, just ignorant?) two years before the world was warned by the Club of Rome of the Limits to Growth - and causes me to meditate on how odd that I should have been born in this astonishing era, an epoch of such wealth and consequently such anticipatory bitterness, when the peak of human civilization is within sight...and those who can see beyond the precipice to the abyss are consumed and overwhelmed with the gnawing dread of knowing life is drawing to a rapid morbid close.
Reiel Folven has passed away, having recently published Too Many Mouths - A Senior Reader on the Human Predicament.  In what he described as "the wisdom of over 100 scientists and world-class thinkers", he brought together in this wisely edited compilation many compelling observations and dire predictions stemming from overpopulation.  Here is a quote (p. 156) worth pondering:

Because of the exponential nature of population growth in the presence of abundant resources, a single generation of the population – the most numerous generation – experiences abundance in its youth, starvation in maturity, and premature death for most of its members. "Crash" is an apt term--a population crash can happen very quickly.
     ~ David M. Delaney

Thanks to cheap energy, we have had a unique, anomalous period of prosperity which has made room for modern luxuries unknown to prior cultures - like the abolition of slavery, the institutionalized repudiation of racism, the expansion of women's rights, a comfortable middle class with limitless aspirations, medical care for the handicapped and the elderly and the prematurely born.  Now with resource constraints and the saturation of the biosphere with pollution, that is all going to disappear forever, just a temporary interregnum of abundance, and we will revert to the ugly fearsome time when the survival of the fittest isn't just a theory to be debated anymore but an imperative that will ruthlessly suppress moral sensibilities.  (Interregnum 2012 is here.)
It is not at all unusual for people to delve into the past when it dawns on them that we are hurtling our heedless way towards ecocide.  It seems to be a common urge to understand what has brought us to this ecopocalypse, and to wonder whether it could have been averted, and if so when, and how.

As these questions plagued me I have wondered if it was the invention of agriculture, or earlier - the wheel, or becoming meat eaters, or first matching stick to stone.  I suspect what set humans outside of natural controls of our growth was fostered mainly by the the discovery of how to create and control fire (which I wrote about in a post called, I Blame Prometheus).  I find more and more scientific evidence that speculation may well be the case.  A paleoecological research institute in New Zealand includes this information on their website:

From the book, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis:
Not only were Europe and North America affected by changes in the climate, but tropical regions as well — although less is known about the latter. As humans migrated to newly forested areas, they would have nearly as much impact on the forest over the subsequent 10,000 years as the glaciers had for 100,000 years. Chapter 2 points to fire as the main vehicle used by primitive peoples for deforestation. Williams argues that the manipulation and taming of nature by prehistoric and native peoples is commonly ignored and underestimated. Their actions have been romanticized and asserted to have been ecologically benign. But, according to Williams, natives never were “in perfect harmony” with nature, but attempted to transform it, and fire was the first great force.
The combination of human predation and destruction of habitat through burning led to the extinction of many species across the planet, and Williams provides examples from Europe, North America, and Polynesia. He argues that the first Europeans to visit North America likely observed a profoundly disturbed landscape. At their peak around 1492, the Indian population of North America had long been transforming the forest for agriculture and hunting. Chapter 3 turns to the rise of agriculture, which involved both the domestication of animals and plant species and the removal of forest. The examination begins with the Neolithic period in the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America, and moves on to describe the gradual expansion of agricultural methods and clearing practices.
The effects of deforestation are far-reaching.  Today, scientists suggest that deforestation of the Amazon is the reason behind the crippling drought in Sao Paolo, Brazil, far downwind - by interfering with the hydrological cycle promoted by the evapotranspiration process that derives from living trees. 

An article in New Scientist puts the use of fire second only behind projectile weapons as distinguishing our singular evolution.  In light of the extreme materialism of today's culture, another intriguing aspect is how early the use of jewelry and other body ornamentation began - it appears to be deeply embedded in our psyches to express status through such symbolism.  I found this chronology fascinating.  Some excerpts:

Transformers:  Ten Revolutions that Made Us Human
Two million years ago we were just your average primate – then we started to have some revolutionary ideas and human evolution went into hyper-drive.  What makes us human?
IT WAS at least 7 million years ago that our ancestors diverged from those of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. For most of that time they were ape-like forest dwellers, with the furry bodies, small brains and unsophisticated behaviour to match. Then, about 2 million years ago, everything changed. We began to take evolution into our own hands, starting a series of innovations that changed human history – and made us into the very modern apes we are today (see timeline below).

Cooking  Our earliest ancestors may have walked on two legs, but their heads were small, their teeth large and their arms long. No one knows for sure why they began to look more human, but unlike the bodies of other species, which are shaped by natural selection, ours may have been sculpted by our own ingenuity. Here's the theory. Early hominins dined on tough, raw foods that required a lot of chewing and digesting to break down. That changed when they began to control fire and cook. Heat softens food and breaks down difficult-to-digest fibre into easily absorbed sugars. Big teeth and long guts were no longer necessary, and so over the generations they gradually shrank. Other things shrank too. Because fire wards off predators, our ancestors did not have to retreat to the trees at night and no longer needed such long arms for climbing. Finally, the energy savings made by shrinking body parts went to their heads; their brains began to grow. In other words, Homo erectus looked like us because it cooked like us....An alternative idea pins brain growth on a shift to eating meat, which would provide a more nutritious diet. It implies H. erectus was a skilled hunter. Our bodies certainly seem adapted to chase down prey until it is totally exhausted. But another ancient human innovation reshaped the rules of the hunt – and perhaps the nature of human societies too. 
Weapons  Projectile weapons travel faster than even the speediest antelope. A study published last year suggested that H. erectus made use of them, since it was the earliest of our ancestors with a shoulder suitable for powerful and accurate throwing. What's more, unusual collections of fist-sized rocks at a H. erectussite near the town of Dmanisi in Georgia give an idea of their projectile weapon of choice.But throwing rocks did more than offer a new hunting strategy: it also gave early humans an effective way to kill an adversary. Christopher Boehm at the University of Southern California has suggested that projectile weapons levelled the playing field in early human societies by allowing even the weakest group member to take down a dominant figure without having to resort to hand-to-hand combat. So weapons, he argues, encouraged early human groups to embrace an egalitarian existence unique among primates; one that is still seen in hunter-gatherer societies today. [note: as usual, this sort of  egalitarianism only applies to males!]In fact, weapons may have had an even greater impact. Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza at Stony Brook University in New York have developed the idea that human societies used, and continue to use, the threat of projectile weapons to encourage a high level of cooperation among group members. They call it the social coercion theory. 
Jewellery and cosmetics If Bingham and Souza are right, we would recognise some of our social behaviour in H. erectus. However, it is not until 100,000 years ago – after the appearance of Homo sapiens – that many of our most recognisable habits began to form. At the Blombos cave in South Africa, excavations a decade ago revealed collections of shells that had been perforated and stained, and then strung together to form necklaces or bracelets. Similar finds have now turned up at other sites in Africa. More recently, work at Blombos has uncovered evidence that ochre was deliberately collected, combined with other ingredients and fashioned into body paint or cosmetics.  At first glance these inventions seem trivial, but they hint at dramatic revolutions in the nature of human beliefs and communication. Jewellery and cosmetics were probably prestigious, suggesting the existence of people of higher and lower status and challenging the egalitarian sensibilities that had existed since the early days of H. erectus. More importantly, they are indications of symbolic thought and behaviour because wearing a particular necklace or form of body paint has meaning beyond the apparent. As well as status, it can signify things like group identity or a shared outlook. That generation after generation adorned themselves in this way indicates these people had language complex enough to establish traditions. 
Sewing  What people invented to wear with their jewellery and cosmetics was equally revolutionary. Needle-like objects appear in the archaeological record about 60,000 years ago, providing the first evidence of tailoring, but humans had probably already been wearing simple clothes for thousands of years. Evidence for this comes from a rather unusual source. Body lice, which live mostly in clothes, evolved from hair lice sometime after humans began clothing themselves, and a study of louse genetics suggests body lice arose some 70,000 years ago. A more recent analysis puts their origin as early as 170,000 years ago. Either way, it looks like we were wearing sewn clothes when we migrated from our African cradle some 60,000 years ago and began spreading across the world.Mark Stoneking at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, an author on the original louse study, suggests that clothes would have allowed humans to inhabit cold areas that their naked predecessors could not tolerate. Sewing could have been a crucial development, since fitted garments are more effective at retaining body heat than loose animal furs. Even then, the frozen north would have been a challenge for a species that evolved on the African savannah, and recent research indicates that we also took advantage of changes in the climate to spread across the world.
Containers  When some of our ancestors left Africa, they probably travelled with more than just the clothes on their backs. About 100,000 years ago, people in southern Africa began using ostrich eggs as water bottles. Having containers to transport and store vital resources would have given them huge advantages over other primates. But engravings on these shells are also highly significant: they appear to be a sign that dispersed groups had begun to connect and trade.Since 1999, Pierre-Jean Texier at the University of Bordeaux in France has been uncovering engraved ostrich egg fragments at the Diepkloof rock shelter, 150 kilometres north of Cape Town in South Africa. The same five basic motifs are used time and again, over thousands of years, implying they had a meaning that could be read and understood across numerous generations. Texier and his colleagues think they show that people were visually marking and defining their belongings to maintain their group identity as they began travelling further and interacting with other groups.
Law  As our ancestors began trading, they would have needed to cooperate fairly and peacefully – with not just group members but also strangers from foreign lands. So trade may have provided the impetus to invent law and justice to help keep people in line.Hints of how law evolved come from modern human groups, which, like Stone Age hunter-gatherers, live in egalitarian, decentralised societies. The Turkana are nomadic pastoralists in east Africa. Despite having no centralised political power, the men will cooperate with non-family members in a life-threatening venture – stealing livestock from neighbouring peoples, say. While the activity itself may be ethically dubious, the motivation to cooperate reflects ideas that underpin any modern justice system. If men refuse to join these raiding parties they are judged harshly and punished by other group members, says Sarah Mathew at Arizona State University in Tempe. "They display mechanisms of adjudication and punishment akin to formal judiciary, suggesting that law and justice predates the emergence of centralised societies."
Timekeeping  As trade flourished over the millennia that followed, it wasn't just material goods that were exchanged. Trade in ideas encouraged new ways of thinking, and perhaps the early stirrings of scientific thought. Communities of hunter-gatherers living in what is now Scotland may have been among the first to scientifically observe and measure their environment. Aberdeenshire has many Mesolithic sites dating from about 10,000 years ago, including an odd monument consisting of a dozen pits arranged in a shallow arc trending roughly north-east to south-west. When Vincent Gaffney at the University of Birmingham and his colleagues noticed the arc faced a sharp valley on the horizon through which the sun rises on the winter solstice, they realised it was a cosmological statement. The 12 pits were almost certainly used to keep track of lunar months. The Aberdeenshire lunar "calendar" – or "time reckoner" as they dubbed it – is comfortably twice the age of any previously found."Almost every culture begins to define the passing of time using the moon," says Gaffney. By establishing a formal concept of time you know when to expect seasonal events, such as the return of salmon to the local rivers. And knowledge is power. "If you have that arcane knowledge you have the opportunity to control society," says Gaffney. 
Ploughing  While Scotland's hunter-gatherers were measuring time, their contemporaries in the Near East had settled down to farm. Crop cultivation is tough work that inspired the first farmers to invent labour-saving devices. The most quintessential of these, the plough, might have influenced society in a surprising way.In the past, as today, hunter-gatherer societies were probably often divided along gender lines, with men hunting and women gathering. Farming promised greater gender equality, because both sexes could work the land, but the plough – which was heavy and so primarily controlled by men – brought an end to that. So argued Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup in the 1970s. Last year Paola Giuliano at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues tested the idea by comparing gender equality in societies across the world that either adopted the plough or a different form of agriculture. Not only did they confirm the plough effect, they found that it continues to influence gender perceptions today. "The plough is not the only determinant of differences in gender roles," stresses Giuliano. "But if two societies are otherwise alike, those that use the plough will be more gender-biased." 
Sewerage  Farming has been described as the worst mistake in human history: it is back-breaking work. But it did provide such plentiful food that it allowed the growth of urban centres. City living comes with many advantages but it also carries a health warning; urbanites are at risk from infectious diseases carried by water.Almost as long as there have been cities, there have been impressive sewerage systems. Cities in the 5000-year-old Indus Valley society were built above extensive drains. Lavatory-like systems existed in early Scottish settlements dating from around the same time, and there are 3500-year-old flush toilets and sewers in Crete. But none of these were really designed with sanitation in mind, says Thomas Bond at Imperial College London. "Many of the sewerage systems were advanced in a civil engineering sense, but they were really just to dispose of waste water – for example into the nearest river."It was only in the 1850s, when physician John Snow linked an outbreak of cholera in London to insanitary water supplies, that people started to clean waste water. Large-scale centralised sewage works date from the early decades of the 20th century. Effective sewerage was a long time coming, but when it did arrive it revolutionised public health. 
Writing  The engraved ostrich eggshells of Diepkloof show that modern humans have used graphical symbols to convey meaning for at least 100,000 years. But genuine writing was only invented about 5000 years ago. Now people could record information and pass it between places and generations. Cultural evolution would never be the same again.Writing also provided a means to convey hopes and fears, revealing how subsequent innovations had affected the human psyche. Some of the world's oldest texts, from the Mesopotamian city-state of Lagash, rail against the spiralling taxes exacted by a corrupt ruling class. Soon afterwards, King Urukagina of Lagash wrote what is thought to be the first documented legal code. He has gained a reputation as the earliest social reformer, creating laws to limit the excesses of the rich, for instance, but his decrees also entrench the inferior social position of women. One details penalties for adulterous women, but makes no mention of adulterous men. Despite all our revolutionary changes, humanity still had some way to go.

For those who think there might have been some point at which humans could have averted disaster, at what point would that be in that great trajectory of acquiring tools and technology, as well as creativity, knowledge and the capacity for belief in spirituality?  To me they all seem inextricably linked.   I imagine how, as human minds began to grasp the concept of time and wonder about the cyclical patterns of seasons and celestial bodies, tremendous respect would be conferred upon anyone with enough brazen confidence to claim special knowledge or explanatory powers, and the shaman or priest would the possess fearsome abilities to influence others.
Glancing over a marvelous list of lost cities - of sophisticated societies from around the world that collapsed so completely they were often forgotten and lay buried for centuries under sand or jungle before being accidentally rediscovered - it is hard to give credence to the idea that there is anything unusual, or preventable, about overshoot and collapse.

"Our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light." In this brief rumination about Earth and our place on it, Carl Sagan talks about our "fervent hatreds" and makes no distinction between race, class, geographical or temporal location  when he describes the "folly of HUMAN conceits".  He warns that nothing will be forthcoming from beyond to save us from ourselves, and that it is up to preserve and cherish the only home we've ever known.  When you look at the BIG picture, at scale, we are all one species and our destructive, extractive behavior is indistinguishable across cultures and epochs.  This doesn't excuse egregious evil.  But it puts it solidly within the purview of who we all are.


Several news outlets have reported on a new study that air pollution is cutting crop yields significantly - although the obvious implications for wild vegetation and trees seem to escape notice, as usual.  See the Guardian, and even more strongly, the Telegraph India story which states:
Air pollution is a far bigger threat than climate change to wheat and rice and a key factor holding back India from achieving optimum yields of these crops, a new study has suggested. The study released today by scientists at the University of California, San Diego, has found that India’s wheat yields during 2010 were on an average about 36 per cent lower than they would have been in the absence of air pollution and climate change. Researchers Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Jennifer Burney at the UCSD have also shown that up to 90 per cent of the reduction in the wheat yields could be attributed to air pollutants, mainly soot particles, or black carbon and ozone... 
“We’ve been largely focused on how climate change may influence crop yields, these results suggest that air pollution is a larger threat,” Srinivasan told The Telegraph.
What's amazing is none of this is really new.  The US Dept of Agriculture has been trying to develop "ozone-resistant" crops, to almost no avail, for years.  Justin Gillis of the New York Times, continuing his assiduous avoidance of impacts to the natural world, reported about the ongoing attempts to engineer annual crops, in which he made a number of dubious statements and glaring omissions.  He described ozone as  "...a corrosive form of oxygen that attacks both plants and people’s lungs, and many experts fear ground-level ozone will increase as the world gets hotter and more polluted."

Fair enough, and then he points to the down-side of elevated CO2:

"In a high-profile paper, the experts reported that crops grown in environments designed to mimic future conditions have serious deficiencies of certain nutrients, compared with crops of today.
The Illinois researchers are trying to move past just documenting the potential trouble, though. The bigger question is: What can be done to make crops more resilient?"

"In recent years, leading scientists have called for a much more intense focus on ozone, noting that it seems to be cutting world food production already compared with what would otherwise be possible. Moreover, it may be an easier pollutant to control than carbon dioxide."

Here is where he goes off the rails.  Ozone might be easier to control in the sense that once you stop producing it, the atmosphere clears relatively quickly, whereas CO2 persists, continuing to heat the planet for centuries.  However, my understanding is that whenever fuel is combusted, nitrogen becomes oxidized, and voilá, there is your precursor to ozone - so the only way to "control" ozone is to reduce the burning of fuel...which isn't going to happen voluntarily.  No wonder they are looking for "resistant" cultivars.
"...reducing ozone is not the only possible strategy for helping crops. Developing plants resistant to its effects would be another approach, and that is a major focus at the University of Illinois."

Not to mention that methane, another precursor, is going to continue to increase no matter what we do now, thanks to amplifying feedbacks in the melting permafrost and, potentially, clathrates.  And, it leaves out the ominous expectation expressed in the PhysOrg paper linked at the top of this post:

"...our findings show that the emissions reductions we're expecting to achieve won't guarantee air quality on their own, as they will be offset by changes in climate and land use and by an increase in wildfires. This is an issue that will affect all parts of the world, not just the USA."
Indeed, research from India already indicates that "The nationally aggregated yield loss is sufficient to feed 94 million people living below poverty line in India."

The blinkered perspective of Justin Gillis and the USDA scientists, who are splurging tax money on expensive equipment while they cavort in the fields, is also pervasive in the frequently encountered advice to plant trees because they absorb ozone and conveniently clean the air for us squalid humans.  It is expressed also in a new study that informs us forests are absorbing excess nitrogen, in another benevolentservice to us humans, because it prevents - or at least slows - the eutrophication of wetlands, streams, lakes, and rivers.  Thank you trees!!  Sorry that excess nitrogen isn't so good for you!

Ecological Society of America
Ecologists working in central Pennsylvania forests have found that forest top soils capture and stabilize the powerful fertilizer nitrogen quickly, within days, but release it slowly, over years to decades. The discrepancy in rates means that nitrogen can build up in soils. Forests may be providing an unappreciated service by storing excess nitrogen emitted by modern agriculture, industry, and transport before it can cause problems for our waterways.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient, required for all living things to live and grow. Though a major component of the air, it is largely inaccessible, captured only through the metabolism of certain microbes or washed to earth in the form of ammonia, nitrogen oxides, or organic material by rain, snow, and fog. On land, microbes, fungi, and plants incorporate what doesn't wash away into proteins, DNA, and other biological components. Organic matter in the soil -- the remains of fallen leaves, animal droppings, and dead things in various states of decay -- can also capture newly deposited nitrogen, holding it stable in the soil.
Mature forests store nitrogen more efficiently than young forests recovering from clear-cuts the authors found, because they have been accumulating organic matter on the forest floor for a century or more. When a forest is clear cut, erosion soon follows, washing away top soil. A young stand of trees a decade old is beginning to rebuild the organic layer, but it will take many autumns to accumulate.
The orderly succession of changes in resident species as a forest grows and ages is a classic preoccupation of ecological theory. The exchange of nutrients among the species and the non-living landscape also changes with succession, and the discovery that nitrogen accumulates in the organic soil indicates something important about how an ecosystem's nutrient economy ages. It was thought, up through the 1970s and early 80s, that an ecosystem grows like a person. At some point, forests, like people, stop getting bigger and adding new biomass. Ecologists argued that the ability to capture incoming nutrients stopped with the end of growth. But by the mid-80s, it was clear that mature ecosystems did continue to absorb nitrogen, mostly in soil. By showing that nitrogen capture is much faster than its release, Lewis and colleagues suggest a mechanism by which old ecosystems can accumulate new inputs of nutrients.
Because soils rich in organics can quickly incorporate nitrogen, forest soils have the potential to absorb excess nitrogen that has been newly added to the biosphere through human activities. Application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and combustion of fossil fuels produce substantial amounts of ammonia and nitrogen oxides. Since industrialization, human activities have tripled the global rate of fixation of nitrogen from the air. The excess has perturbed the nutrient economies of many ecosystems, most visibly by feeding algal blooms and oxygen-deprived dead zones in lakes and estuaries. The study suggests that we may want to strategically conserve or restore forests, preserving organic-rich soils where they intercept the movement of ground water towards streams, lakes, or estuaries.

For Halloween, middle daughter asked me to style her hair, which necessitated much braiding, pinning and snake insertion.  To my delight, I learned this, of Medusa, from wiki:

"Medusa has sometimes appeared as representing notions of scientific determinism and nihilism, especially in contrast with romantic idealism. In this interpretation of Medusa, attempts to avoid looking into her eyes represent avoiding the ostensibly depressing reality that the universe is meaningless. Jack London uses Medusa in this way in his novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore:"
I cannot help remembering a remark of De Casseres. It was over the wine in Mouquin's. Said he: "The profoundest instinct in man is to war against the truth; that is, against the Real. He shuns facts from his infancy. His life is a perpetual evasion. Miracle, chimera and to-morrow keep him alive. He lives on fiction and myth. It is the Lie that makes him free. Animals alone are given the privilege of lifting the veil of Isis; men dare not. The animal, awake, has no fictional escape from the Real because he has no imagination. Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie."
We learn more of Maya in the following excerpt from Chapter XI - "Hoping, Growing, and the Analytical Process", from Suicide and the Soul, by James Hillman, 1979:
"WHERE there is life, there is hope" is the physician's maxim. Hope puts heart in the patient, strengthening his will to live. The physician dare never yield his hope. It is the essence of his therapeutic attitude. 
This maxim means more than its secular, medical use, i.e., as long as the patient lives there is hope for cure. The sentence states an identity of life and hope. Where life is, there is hope. And this hope is the very will to live, the desire for the future--or as the dictionary defines it: "to expect with desire". How could we go on without it; what is tomorrow without it? The physician's maxim offers the idea that man's fundamental driving force might well be hope, just as hopelessness is the atmosphere of suicide. Where there is life, there must be hope. Hope keeps us going. Or as T. S. Eliot has phrased it: 
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind Cannot bear very much reality.

And if hope is the fundamental emotional force of life, perhaps it is also, as Eliot hints, the opposite: the fundamental deceit, as the expectation and desire that takes us away from the moment. 
The tales of the origin of hope in the world might be worth recalling. In India hope belongs to Maya, the Great Goddess, who tempts us with the round of illusion.  Like Maya, hope spins the countless fancies of our fate. We are caught up in a web of hopes which is the will to live experienced as projections towards the future.  
As fundamental emotion, the hope of Maya would be what modern psychology calls the projecting function of the psyche which never lets us go as long as we live, luring us onward. In the West, Pandora is the counterpart of Maya. The tales of their creation show parallels. In Greece, Zeus made Pandora as a life-sized statue, a doll of painted beauty, the first 'sweet cheat' (kalon kakon), endowed with virtues by twenty of the Greek divinities. 
In India,  the Great Goddess came into being as a combined product of the assembled Hindu pantheon to save the world from despair. In another tale she appeared in the form of Dawn; and then, as Sati, she was fashioned by Brahma in the presence of twenty divinities to tempt Shiva down from ascetic isolation so that the eternal play of life could continue, breeding and exfolilating without cessation. 
Associated with the Goddess, Greek and Hindu, are all the follies and vices of human passion, and all the creative (Shiva and Brahma; Prometheus, Hephaestus, Zeus) energies of human pursuits. 
Pandora in her original form was represented as a large jar or vessel. As the Panofskys show, this vessel became a box in later tradition. In Pandora, as vessel, all the evils of the world lay concealed.  When this was opened (and it must be inevitably, in the same manner that Eve brought Sin into the world by yielding to temptation of the forbidden) out flew the evils, all save Hope. The creation of the phenomenal world of illusion is similar in Greece, in India, in the Old Testament. 
Hesiod's tale of Pandora tells us that hope is one of the evils that was in the vessel, and is the only one that remains within.  It lies concealed where it is not seen, whereas all the other evils, fancies, passions are the projections we meet outside in the world. These can be recaptured by integrating the projections.  But hope is within, bound up with the dynamism of life itself. Where hope is, is life. 
We can never confront it directly any more than we can seize life, for hope is the urge to live into tomorrow, the heedless leaning ahead into the future. Go, go, go.
Is not religious hope altogether different ? We find it in Paul's Epistle to the Romans, VlI: "For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope:  for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it."  Hoping is not hoping for what one hopes for; one hopes not for that which is already known. Such hope is hope for the wrong thing. It is illusion. Again to use the words of Eliot: 
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without loveFor love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Or, as Reiel Folven noted less formally, designating "hope" as "optimism":

Evolution made optimism genetic. Skilled optimists survived and mated most effectively.
The new era made collective decision making awful more difficult than in the jungle.
The optimism however remained.
A major reason for our predicament is IMHO therefore NAIVE OPTIMISM.

Here is a last video, which is bizarre, but I like it.  I don't know about the lyrics, but the visuals hint at the intimation that somewhere, deep inside all of us, we know that we are messing with the trees to our detriment, and they will be revenged.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Election Charade

I didn't vote.  I suppose I might have if there was any chance of influencing short-term local issues but I live in such an overwhelmingly conservative area that it's pointless...and as far as national policy, well, this government is so corrupt, there is no chance of any political solutions averting collapse on various fronts.  Thanks to the wonders of technology, we can reflect on the prescience of George Carlin.


Sunday, November 2, 2014


Misprision:  treasonous failure to report a crime

Silver maple, western New Jersey, November 1, 2014

This morning, courtesy of the unfailing source of the fascinating and obscure -synthetic_zero blog, I watched a lecture by Claire Colebrook.  A professor at Penn State, she is the author of Death of the Post-Human: Essays on Extinction, Volume I.  I haven’t read it yet, but considering the description, I certainly will, especially because it is available for free online:

Death of the PostHuman undertakes a series of critical encounters with the legacy of what had come to be known as 'theory, and its contemporary supposedly post-human aftermath. There can be no redemptive post-human future in which the myopia and anthropocentrism of the species finds an exit and manages to emerge with ecology and life. At the same time, what has come to be known as the human - despite its normative intensity - can provide neither foundation nor critical lever in the Anthropocene epoch. Death of the PostHuman argues for a twenty-first century deconstruction of ecological and seemingly post-human futures.

Since she is also co-editor of the Critical Climate Change series, I seriously doubt she is a climate change denier, as the endeavor is presented as the frontier of new developments in theoretical and practical thinking. The world is changing so rapidly and in so many interconnected ways that theory has only begun to make the innovative responses demanded. The two distinguished editors of this series are seeking manuscripts that will respond creatively to climate meltdowns, global political and economic meltdowns, and new teletechnologies, in their complex interrelations. The series is a bold and timely enterprise.”

And after all, the publisher’s webpage is illustrated with this Goya painting of Saturn devouring his son:

Therefor I interpret her remarks as setting climate change - and the geologic era of the Anthropocene - into the context of humanity’s ongoing barbarity and exploitation both of each other, and the natural world, as opposed to a singularly remarkable outcome - a perspective I completely endorse.  If you listen to the entire lecture (embedded at the end of this post) you will find that she places the deforestation and violence of Australian aborigines firmly in this global pattern of destruction.  Below I have transcribed some of the points she emphasized in her talk (removing some superfluities).

27 minutes in, she refers to “…Walter Benjamin’s claim that every document of civilization is a document of barbarism.  This is not just to say that string quartets are written and appreciated in the same world as mass slaughter - it’s not just they contingently happen to be together - rather that some violent subjection of humans, for the sake of generating surplus production and energy is required to release the time and space of the history of Enlightenment.  Philosophy, rights, the constitution of a private self with a definitive personhood, sexuality and fulfilling life trajectory are not merely contingently placed alongside planetary and human/human violence…so in our planet, with our material conditions, those two things have not just been contingently related but because of the material composition of our planet are ESSENTIALLY related.  We live on a  planet with limited resources....

39 minutes in:

“Here’s the conclusion.  The idea of a life, life that could develop to its utmost potentiality, or purity - that you could have something like pure life, pure thinking - without incurring debt or debts to itself is what drives technological industrial investment.  The more we develop clean technology - oh you know, we can have “clean” technologies, or you could have pure thinking…I hate to say it because I really like Naomi Klein [but] that climate change is going to end up, we’re going to end up with this utopia in which you have social justice and climate justice, ultimately it’s a win-win...this notion generates the delusional idea of a life without expense, loss or misprision.  It’s the notion of generating more in the final instance than one initially takes.  It’s the dream of a pure ecology.

45 minutes in:

We are thinking of the Anthropocene as exceptional, as a volatility or destabilization of nature that has been caused accidentally by us…a sort of “oops, we went too far”…But what we know about the state of that IF the normal can be suspended - oh my goodness, we’ve destroyed the planet - then this is because what was there as the exception was always there as a potential.  There was nothing proper about humans and their relation to ecology.  This is not exceptional.  This loss of nature, this exceptional volatility - oh my goodness, nature has become volatile - it’s uncontrollable!  That’s the way most humans have always lived…Humans have always been disturbed except for a very brief moment in their history where they felt that they weren’t.

Nature appears now to be changing on us, it’s refusing to be stable.  That is not a result of anthropogenic climate change, that’s what Nature is.  It’s the condition from which what we know is the Anthropocene manufactured as a stable Nature.  The Anthropocene manufactured a stable Nature.  Volatility is the way of the world, not something caused by humans.  What we now call climate change is the re-emergence of what made climate possible.  Climate - what we think of as climate - was manufactured from climate change.  Climate change was there in the beginning, climate stability is what was manufactured.  What we are seeing is the return of the repressed.

So the event of the Anthropocene is exceptional, but not by being extrinsic to what we have come to refer to as Nature or Humanity.  If now we are responding to planetary destruction with surprise and wondering how we might engineer a future that would not cost the Earth, then we’re just repeating the whole Anthropocene era, it’s hardly an event…almost a non-event…nothing happening here, move on.  It’s the continuation of man, as the being who believes that he can finally be different, and transform himself to the point where he makes no difference.  It’s the very dream of a certain pure ecology that has always defined man in his essence, which is to say man in his trajectory, that is ecologically bound up with violence and depletion.

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