Monday, July 6, 2015

Stewards of Planet Earth

The entire west coast of North America is very hot and very dry, and there are a truly staggering number of wildfires as a result.  Still, it is ironic that you can see a news video like the one embedded in this Seattle Times article, "Burning Rain Forest Raises Concern About Future" - which begins with a shot of a huge old tree, smoke pouring out of a gigantic hole at the base.  Obviously, the process of interior rot began long before this season's unprecedented drought and heat wave, and yet none of the firefighters interviewed seem to have any inkling that the forest has been dying for some years - not even the firefighter who says, a couple of minutes into the film, that the trees are rotted on the inside!

It would appear that nowadays people think it is normal for trees to be rotten.  Perhaps we will soon get used to regular reports of fires raging out of control, and people dying in heat waves.

Following is the transcript for the 6th Dispatch from the Endocene, which aired on Extinction Radio on Sunday, July 5 (embedded below, starting at 6:54 in):

Hello Mike, and welcome, listeners, to the Sixth Dispatch from the Endocene.

No sooner had I finished my last Dispatch, when immediately a new paper was released - which proclaimed that hey, there really IS a Sixth Mass Extinction underway or, at least, the beginning of one.  This publication ignited countless sensational headlines, even in mainstream media, and other silly version at Motherboard/Vice - “We Are 100%, For Sure, in the Middle of a Major Extinction Event”!

Probably anybody who is savvy enough to be part of the Extinction Radio audience is already aware of this research and its explosive impact in the past two weeks, but for convenience there will be links to some of the news articles and author interviews at the website, as for the other studies that will be part of today’s episode.

The unusual hoopla may have come as a surprise to those biologists and ecologists who have been shouting from the mountaintops for years, even the authors, including Paul Ehrlich and Anthony Barnosky - that human overpopulation is outstripping the earth’s ability to provide resources and absorb pollution.  The primary warning  - that humans are destroying essential habitat for other species, and hunting them to oblivion - goes back to ecologists like Aldo Leopold starting in the 1920’s, and even to Thomas Malthus over two centuries ago.

Just last fall, a study in Conservation Biology, titled “Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction" found that the natural, prehistoric rate of extinction had been overestimated.  A summary of the research in PhyOrg stated that the prior estimate had “skewed the current rate, making it appear to be only 100 times faster during human times. With the new data, the researchers hypothesize not only that current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than natural background rates of extinction but that future rates are likely to be 10,000 times higher.”

Nevertheless this newest assessment, titled “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction” subjected the data to rigorous analysis.  In an effort to end criticism of biological alarmism, the authors used very cautious calculations to compare the prehistoric rate of extinctions for vertebrates with the current rate and found that, using the most extremely conservative parameters, it is now at least 100 times higher.  

There is doubt it is far worse than that, if only because there are so many insects and other invertebrates and plants for which there is little data or that haven’t even been discovered and named - tiny populations that inhabit such a rare specialized niche we will never even know they existed before they go extinct.

Inevitably, even as the import of their research is obviously dire, the last line of the abstract includes the obligatory hopeful statement - that it’s not too late to reverse the trend, as long as we hurry up.  In the discussion section, the authors even made the preposterous assertion that “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species, and to alleviate pressures on their populations - notably habitat loss, over-exploitation for economic gain and climate change.”  

I had to laugh at the absurdity of qualifying “mass extinction” with the word “true”.  “True” as opposed to, what, a “phony” mass extinction?  A “pretend” mass extinction?  A “fantasy, only in your nightmares” mass extinction?

Despite that cowardly disclaimer, the attention given their conclusions would seem to indicate their results hit a nerve within a rising crescendo of growing anxiety.  Recently we have seen a slow collective awakening to overshoot and collapse that is reflected in contemporary literature, movies, and news about massive dieoffs that are becoming more difficult to avoid completely, because they are affecting a huge number of species, almost everywhere you care to look.

This causes me to wonder how long it will before the climate and environmental activist communities are forced to stop blaming public ignorance and corporate manipulation of the media.  What or who will they blame for the conspicuous lack of action, when it eventually becomes clear that people DO know humans are causing mass extinctions, as well as creating climate chaos - but we simply aren’t willing to give up the conveniences and luxuries of modern civilization…no matter how badly our own offspring will fare in the aftermath?  

Most people I come across don’t even bother with active denial, they simply ignore the warnings - because they understand at a visceral level, perhaps even better than scientists and green activists, that to "do something" about those problems would require a huge personal sacrifice, and nobody is willing to do that (not even the scientists and the activists).  Nobody wants to give up lights, planes, iphones, electronic toys, reproducing, cars, and strawberries in winter. As for the billions of people that can’t access those options yet, they aspire to have them.

And it is worth repeating that the sixth mass extinction is not being driven, at least not yet, by climate change.

Here is how one academic posed the issue in an article published in in 2013:

“What would happen to the world if, with the snap of our fingers, we shifted all our energy supplies to renewable sources overnight? You might be surprised at the answer: not much, at least for biodiversity and ecosystems.”

“Certainly, it might solve the climate problem, but I have canvassed this question in a number of different places, and the answers usually converge on this: we would still wreck Earth’s ecosystems. And what’s more, we’d still wreck them on a timescale similar to the trajectory that we’re on already.”

“The reason is that climate change is A problem, not THE problem. At the moment much of the focus is on climate and there’s no doubt this is a problem that requires emergency action now to see if we can avoid the worst of the tipping points. But there are many “showstoppers”, any and all of which can bring humanity and biodiversity to a sticky end.”

“Without biodiversity in all its forms, which creates the complex web of interrelated systems that hold the biosphere in homeostasis, things that we take for granted such as temperature, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere or the even concentration of salt in the sea, will no longer support the life we know.”

“Something other than climate change is driving the current mass extinction. The impacts of climate change, though potentially catastrophic, are in the main yet to come – albeit sooner than we have previously expected.”

“The current trajectory of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is being driven by cutting down forests, over-fishing, chemical pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat destruction, desertification and so on. These activities are all a function of the vast amount of energy we have at our disposal. We have too much and, as we use it, we damage ecosystems.”

Speaking of having enough oxygen to support the life we know, you will find a link to new research that traces a serious depletion in the concentration of oxygen due to a variety of human activities, including producing fertilisers essential to feed the billions of people already on earth.

One prominent scientist not associated with that Sixth Mass Extinction study we began with, but who has been in the forefront of extinction warnings over a very long and distinguished career, is Professor Eric Pianka of the University of Texas at Austin.  He is one of the world’s experts on herpetology and an evolutionary ecologist, soon to be conferred the well-deserved title of Eminent Ecologist, by the Ecological Society of America, next month.  He has had a fascinating career, doing extensive field work in the Great Victoria desert of Australia and the Kalahari in Africa.

Some of you might recall a sordid episode in 2006 when Dr. Pianka’s acceptance speech upon receiving the “Distinguished Texas Scientist of the Year” award, was twisted out of all recognition and distorted to imply he favored a global Ebola epidemic, to cull the human race.  If you missed it, the outlines of the controversy are actually a good introduction to his perspective, so a link about that, plus others to his writing will also be found on the Extinction Radio website.

Being familiar with some of Dr. Pianka’s essays as well as his endorsement of Reg Morrison, author of Spirit in the Gene, I emailed him seeking a less sugar-coated scientific assessment of the prospects for biodiversity - given the general unwillingness of people to rein in their consumption.  Specifically, I asked him what he thought the odds were the human species will make it to, say, 2050 - and he replied:

“We blew right past our chance to ease into a sustainable existence decades ago in the mid-1980s and we are well into the anthropocene sixth extinction.”

“Collapse is now inevitable but it’s impossible to predict exactly when this will happen.  It will differ in different places, depending on populations and resources, especially water.”

In another message, Dr. Pianka later added the following:

“For me, the disparity between what we are, and what we could have been, is the greatest tragedy.”

and he reflected, further:

“For the first and only time in the long history of life on Earth, a product of natural selection has understood the process by which we became to be what we are: we actually learned to understand our hard-wired instincts and fathom our subconscious mind but we have failed to find the willpower to overcome those instincts.

We also learned a lot about matter and energy, and even managed to date our cosmos.

As a scientist, I treasure human knowledge.  We got SO close, but then we blew it.
Some think that intelligence inevitably destroys itself.

We humans could have been God-like stewards of planet Earth.”

If you check out only one link I encourage you watch the youtube video where Dr. Pianka discusses and then reads James Dickey’s poem, “For the Last Wolverine”.  It is a presentation filled with both love and grief that encompasses all the pathos implied in our battered world.  The poem is even more heartbreaking for having been written in 1966.

The poets seem to have known for longer than science what we have lost.  Another is Robinson Jeffers, author of The Purse Seine, written in 1937.  Robinson Jeffers lived in Carmel, California and witnessed the over harvesting of the once fabulously vast schools of sardines off the shore of Monterey.  The image of the fish trapped in the net was not unlike humanity trapped in crowded cities, divorced from nature, and he ended that poem with the lines,

“…There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
cultures decay, and life’s end is death.”

To see Dr. Pianka’s evident sadness at our failure to be stewards of the Earth brought to mind the original Wizard of Oz book, where all residents and visitors in the Emerald City were required to wear green glasses - because it wasn’t really emerald.  Most people live their lives wearing the equivalent of tinted lenses, blinded to reality by believing in dreams and spirits, souls and immortality, irrational hope and denial.

Once that layer of wishful fantasy is removed, it is common to experience profound despair and regret, and then, to attempt to find meaning amidst the spectacular and insane festering waste we have rendered our only precious, splendid home, Earth.  Often the first reaction is an intense desire to do something about the impending catastrophes…and then finally, after a period of time, to realize there is nothing to be done.  Often people are desperate to believe that there could have been better outcome, and so they blame capitalism or agriculture.

From an article in the Washington Post about how we have exceeded boundaries beyond which the ecosystem can cope, I found this observation - “Humanity may have run into trouble with planetary boundaries even in prehistoric times, said Richard Alley, a Penn State geoscientist…The invention of agriculture may have been a response to food scarcity as hunting and gathering cultures spread around, and filled up, the planet, he said. “It’s pretty clear we were lowering the carrying capacity for hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago,” Alley said."

Jared Diamond wrote in a paper some time ago (1987!) called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”:

“As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth…Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.”

It's been about 15,000 years since we hunted the megafauna to extinction.  We turned to agriculture, nearly simultaneously and independently all around the world, because of a continual process of overpopulation and migration, until eventually we filled even the most marginally habitable places and then overpopulated them as well.  In order to survive, people started to grow food and domesticate livestock.  We can no more divest ourselves of that proclivity than we can shed mysticism and the use of tools, language, symbols and expressions of art.

The people who began agriculture no more knew (or cared) that it would ultimately devastate ecosystems than the hunter/gatherers knew (or cared) that they would eat dozens upon dozens of slow-moving tortoises, flightless birds, and large herbivores to the point of extirpation.  Similarly, most people now are still blissfully unaware that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, and that humans are causing it.

What did Jesus say?

"...forgive them; for they know not what they do."

Personally I find a lot of comfort in the philosopher Camus.  Life is absurd; it has no intrinsic meaning; so make your own.

I should add - dance, dance, dance, and sing.  Kiss the sky.  Hug your loved ones.  Bear witness to the fleeting beauty that still lingers on our blistered planet.  Spare some time to admire the trees, being choked and poisoned by atmospheric toxins.

And thanks for listening to this Dispatch From the Endocene.  extinction paper by Gerardo Ceballos, Paul Ehrlich, Anthony Barnosky, and others.

The Real News video interview with Gerardo Ceballos

Aldo Leopold and Malthus

2014 study by Jurriaan M. de Vos in Conservation Biology, "Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction."

Links for Dr. Pianka:

His rendering of the poem “For the Last Wolverine”, probably the most important link in this post

His video “Domino Effects”

Dr. Pianka’s explanation of the speech:

Reg Morrison - Spirit in the Gene:

Jared Diamond on Humanity’s Worst Mistake:



  2. Nice song dmf!

    Thanks for another podcast Gail. It's amazing how clueless people are, but most everyone will "come around" (realize what's up) before it's all over.


  3. I imagine you've seen this:

    California drought leads to mass tree felling across Los Angeles

    7 July 2015

    City officials in Los Angeles have said they don't have enough water to irrigate all the trees in the city, so they are cutting down roughly 14,000 of those that are dead or dying from drought. [adding to the problem with the expenditure of fossil fuel to accomplish this]

    ''It's difficult to say the specific cause of death. But the drought is a very much a very real contributing factor," said Laura Bauernfeind, ground maintenance supervisor for the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

    According to Kirsten Fisher, an assistant professor of biology at California State University in Los Angeles, there are numerous consequences that tree removal may have on local ecosystems and on park visitors. [more]


    1. "Officials plan to start replanting trees once the drought eases off." LMFAO!

  4. The highest complement I can pay to an author is to read their work multiple times before moving on to something else. Not because it is hard to understand but rather because it is dense with fresh and interesting thoughts. I listened to this Dispatch 3 times. Well done!


  6. Is there a site somewhere that keeps track of these assaults by falling trees, like we'd like the fbi to keep track of unarmed people killed by police?

    1. Good question! As far as I have been able to determine, there is not. The CDC, last time I checked, does not distinguish between head trauma and tree trauma (the hospitals do not collect the data), and the insurance companies lump property damage and personal injury and power outages from falling trees into thunderstorm damage, so you can't tell how much is directly due to trees and how much to lightening strikes or wind.

      All I know is, anecdotally, I never, ever heard of anyone being hit by a branch or a falling tree until just a few years ago, and in the interim, it has become commonplace to the point where people now think of trees as "dangerous" when they used to seem as permanent and solid as a granite mountain.

    2. Oh this is hilarious (thanks for those links!) - "The cause of the tree falling is not known." and "Arborists call the phenomenon Sudden Limb Drop, or SLP, which can send otherwise healthy limbs to the ground." and "...the tree did appear to have a structural problem already." - ya think?

  7. "And it is worth repeating that the sixth mass extinction is not being driven, at least not yet, by climate change." Only if you focus on the terrestrial habitat. The collapse of the base of the oceanic food chain, plankton, over the last 20 years is not driven by human resource use. But, wtf, its just 75% of the planet.

  8. Wait what, plankton are dying off? Duh. Why don't you tell me something I don't know, Anon. The cause is far more nuanced than warming. See: and and -- "It is the simultaneous occurrence of the “deadly trio” of acidification, warming and deoxygenation that is seriously effecting how productive and efficient the ocean is, as temperatures, chemistry, surface stratification, nutrient and oxygen supply are all implicated, meaning that many organisms will find themselves in unsuitable environments.
    These impacts will have cascading consequences for marine biology, including altered food web dynamics and the expansion of pathogens. To make matters even worse, this is all happening to marine ecosystems already undermined by other human pressures such as overfishing, eutrophication and pollution.

    The adaption of species to these altered conditions is in some cases possible – as is migration, though as warming demands a poleward migration while acidification encourages the movement to warmer more equatorial waters the “green pastures” will become increasingly scarce and competition for them fierce. Mass extinctions happen in the geological equivalent of overnight; we may already have entered into an extinction period and not yet realized it. What is certain is that current carbon perturbations will have huge implications for humans, and may well be the most important challenge faced since the first hominids evolved."

  9. This is one of the better pieces I've read from the "doomer" sites. Good work!

    I've actually re-posted a chunk of it over to Guy McPherson's site, where Guy and his minions are obsessed with the AGW factor, and Guy has made the mistake of trying to re-invent himself as a deep thinker on the underlying social issues. As your piece points out, blaming "empire", "the patriarchy", and the inevitable progress and expansion of civilizations misses the point entirely. Similarly, the romanticizing of tribal peoples and primitive lifestyles - a hobbyhorse of his (and others) over on NBL also totally misses the point.

    The point is, we are living creatures, and we are biologically driven to expand and take over, just like algae in a lake. That doesn't mean every individual is like that - but as a species we most certainly are. While it is certainly possible to push back against biology, in practice it is extremely difficult to do, and as a species we failed to do it - as we would expect.

    It's kind of like John Lennon singing "Give peace a chance". Well...yeah...OK. But if you know anything about him at all, "peaceful" isn't one of the words you would use to describe him.

    So the algae takes over the lake, chokes out the other life forms, and eventually the fishin' ain't no good.

    Up where I used to live, by Lake Musconetcong, not far from you, they used to run these giant algae sweeping machines to keep that from happening. If only our global problems were that easy to solve.

  10. another victim of climate change:

    Will the drought topple California’s towering redwoods?

    California’s towering redwood trees are dying of thirst.

    “They require enormous amounts of water,” said Anthony Ambrose, a tree biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been studying redwoods and giant sequoias for nearly two decades. “For the big, old trees, they can use more than 2,000 liters of water per day during the summer.”

    Water, however, is in increasingly short supply in the Golden State. All around drought-stricken California, coast redwoods appear to be suffering. They’re shedding leaves, turning brown, and dropping undersized cones. Some of the state’s younger trees, situated in parks and residential areas hundreds of miles away from their native forests, are even dying. [lots more]



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