Friday, January 21, 2011

How I Intend to Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse

This brief video of a barred owl has a breathtakingly intimate close-up.  I couldn't help but notice though, that the hemlock forest is quite transparent, and the bark on the trunk is popping off - from 2007!  I guess trees have been slowly dying for years.  It has greatly accelerated in the last two or three, however, and I'm not sure exactly why, although it surely has something to do with the toxins in the atmosphere.  In addition to the ozone and ethanol and airborne chemicals, perhaps it is related to the massive disruption of the nitrogen cycle in the world's oceans, a hugely important topic nobody has even noticed until now.  In any event,  the ripple effects are becoming evident.  We are losing creatures fast.  The mass deaths recently reported in the media are only the most obvious, and involve birds who spend time in large flocks, or fish in schools.  What of those whose wanderings are more solitary?  They are no doubt perishing from starvation in obscurity.
This morning I woke at 5 am.  The sun was not up yet of course, but it looked light outside anyway, where the sky glowed from the whiteness of fresh snow that had fallen in the night.  As I lay contemplating the quiet, I had the sudden bright thought to go see a psychiatrist.  I pictured him, a kindly, fatherly character, gently explaining to me that actually, I'm insane - and the world as I've known and loved it isn't going to end in the foreseeable future, after all.  What a relief!  How I long to be crazy, then everything would be fine.
As it is, yesterday I went to first daughter's farm to meet with the wedding caterer, to plot the location of the tent and discuss all the options for chairs, service, and table naming (as opposed to numbering - who knew people get offended if they're seated at table 8 and not 5?).  When I turned into the long drive that leads to the horse farm, an avenue which she has lined with dozens of maples, and then passed a row of absolutely enormous pine trees still wrapped in twine, newly planted to shield the old house from the distant development of McMansions built around a cul de sac - I was forced to quell a suffocating fury, an overwhelming rage at the entire human race, myself included.  Most especially my ire is directed towards Ronald Reagan, who has represented for my lifetime the iconic right-wing Republican, Ayn Randian, selfish, greedy, dishonest hypocrite who has despoiled the earth and whose free market (isn't there supposed to be no free lunch?) philosophy will shortly deprive my daughter of everything I have wanted so badly for her - a peaceful, happy future in harmony with nature.  (Currently of course, Ronald Reagan has been replaced by an even cruder epitome of his ilk, Sarah Palin, who lurches through life as heedless as a three year old gripped by a mindless and extended temper tantrum, and actually represents the new face of fascism, wearing lipstick.)
For several weeks since the engagement was announced, it has been sheer delight to investigate different bands on their intertube websites, and pore over savory menus, to visit the florist to choose flowers and debate a color scheme, and stop by the stationer's to prepare invitations - and most fun of all, the excursions to fancy salons in search of the perfect wedding gown, where she tried on one gorgeously designed version after another.  In the end she chose a playfully modern version of the most romantic sort of dress - right out of a Rococo painting by Watteau or Fragonard from the Age of the Enlightenment - a sweeping, fluffy confection with a bodice of exquisite lace, and a skirt with layers of pleats and ruffled gauze, and a satin sash.  She will be the most beautiful of brides, presuming collapse holds off until after May 21.

For Christmas her intended bought her a motion-sensitive camera for her to mount in the woods, where she puts food on the ground to attract wildlife visitors, including this curious deer.
 But most of the action is at night.
She has recorded raccoons, and skunks.
Our favorite of course are the fox.
I have to admit these specimens look quite fit - even plump!
This has been puzzling me, until I think I finally understood it.  As the smaller species that depend upon seeds, nuts and grains - like mice, voles, rabbits, birds and squirrels - are malnourished, they are easier prey for fox, and opportunistic foragers like vultures, skunks and the predators are experiencing a temporary ease and abundance.
Take for example my porch.  I realize this is anecdotal - but hey, this is just a blog!  For more objective scientific evidence scroll up to the top and click on the "Basic Premise" page...anyway, here is a picture of a blue jay, stealing the cat's food from the table.
There were others perched in the wisteria, waiting for their turn.
Also hungry were these little tufted grey birds.
WHY would they be so emboldened that they dare to land not more than 3 feet from this voracious kitty lurking just outside the door to the porch, licking his chops??  Oh possibly, because there is not enough wild forage and they are just completely desperate and starving?
Understanding the full dimensions of the trifucta (the simultaneous and interrelated crashes of the financial, energy and ecosystems) is an excruciatingly painful process.  I cannot imagine what it will be like when more people rather than less understand how abjectly we have terminally squandered our assets and fouled our own nest - earth - beyond recovery or redemption.

It seems so many people have no recognition of the glory we have lost.  They grew up in cities, or have forgotten, what a paradise we inherited after millions of years of evolution to a achieve the peak of lush biodiversity we are on the verge of losing effectively forever.

Instead of posting the usual pictures of the painfully twisted, gnarled, pockmarked and cankered trees which now surround me like specters from hell, I'm going to intersperse the latest bad news with pictures of a few of the wonderful creatures I can find on the intertubes - these first two rescued from the floods in Australia.

In future I'm going to try to explore the notion that it's possible to get beyond the mourning and the fear, and actually revel, not in collapse exactly, but in whatever remains before it happens, and also to sort of meet it head-on, with quixotic defiance...because, why not?
This is why I am going to Rancho Mirage next week, to do my best to let the evil Koch brothers know exactly how deeply I despise them!  Maybe I'll even figure out how to use the new video camera, the intricacies of which have so far eluded me, to record the events - because it's possible that thousands will attend.
Probably the most important story to emerge since the last post, for the purposes of Wit's End, is that citrus trees are dying in Florida.  I heard this NPR story while driving home and it encapsulates everything that is wrong in the public discussion of what is causing trees to die - blaming disease or insects or fungus or globalization and now, abandoned orchards from development gone awry.  Oh, did it frustrate me!  I admit it, I was screaming at the radio.  As soon as I got in the kitchen I left this comment on their website:

The citrus trees dying in Florida are part of a much wider pattern of tree death. The insect, diseases, and fungus are all opportunistic attacks that are exacerbated by the actual cause of decline, which is exposure to the inexorably rising levels of background tropospheric ozone.

Ground level ozone is highly toxic to humans, causing cancers, emphysema, asthma, allergies, diabetes and autism. The really scary thing is, it's even more poisonous to vegetation. Plants have never before in the entire history of earth been exposed to ozone, which is the result of reactions between the volatile organic compounds from burning fuel emissions, and UV radiation.

Ozone travels across continents and oceans. Plants exposed to current levels lose the ability to photosynthesize. NASA and the Dept. of Ag. estimate the loss in annual crop yields in the billions of dollars annually, just for the US. All over the world, essential crops such as wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans are stunted, and their produce diminished in nutritive value.

It's really time that the experts interviewed on this segment stop missing the forest for the trees! 
The Independent UK has published a shocking report about Bee Colony Collapse that reveals just how egregiously USDA is lying to the public.  It's quite incredible, considering how utterly essential bees are to agriculture, that government employees have whored themselves for the benefit of multinational corporate greed.  Don't they have children?  What do they think they are going to eat when all the pollinators are dead?
"A new generation of pesticides is making honeybees far more susceptible to disease, even at tiny doses, and may be a clue to the mysterious colony collapse disorder that has devastated bees across the world, the US government's leading bee researcher has found. Yet the discovery has remained unpublished for nearly two years since it was made by the US Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory...
Dr. Pettis told The Independent his research had now been put forward for publication. "[It] was completed almost two years ago but it has been too long in getting out," he said. "I have submitted my manuscript to a new journal but cannot give a publication date or share more of this with you at this time."
However, it is known about, because Dr. Pettis and a member of his team, Dennis van Engelsdorp, of Penn State University – both leaders in research focusing on colony collapse disorder (CCD) – have spoken about it at some length in a film about bee deaths which has been shown widely in Europe, but not yet in Britain or the US – although it has been seen by The Independent.
In The Strange Disappearance of The Bees, made by the American film-maker Mark Daniels, Pettis and van Engelsdorp reveal that they exposed two groups of bees to the well-known bee disease nosema. One of the groups was also fed tiny doses of imidacloprid. There was a higher uptake of infection in the bees fed the insecticide, even though it could not subsequently be detected, which raises the possibility that such a phenomenon occurring in the wild might be simply undetectable.
Although the US study remains unpublished, it has been almost exactly replicated by French researchers at the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Avignon. They published their study in the journal Environmental Microbiology and said: "We demonstrated that the interaction between nosema and a neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) significantly weakened honeybees."
In November, a leaked internal document from the US Environmental Protection Agency showed that it was continuing to license clothianidin, even though its own scientists reported that the tests Bayer carried out to show the compound was safe were invalid.  [This is referring to the Wikileaks release.]
Yesterday the Buglife director, Matt Shardlow, said of the Pettis study: "This new research from America confirms that at very, very low concentrations neonicotinoid chemicals can make a honeybee vulnerable to fatal disease. If these pesticides are causing large numbers of honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, hoverflies and moths to get sick and die from diseases they would otherwise have survived, then neonicotinoid chemicals could be the main cause of both colony collapse disorder and the loss of wild pollinator populations.
'The weight of evidence against neonicotinoids is becoming irresistible – Government should act now to ban the risky uses of these toxins.'"
So, the USDA held back the publication of critically important scientific research - a paper indicating even tiny amounts of a pesticide cause bees to die from disease - PLUS information that an industry-funded study claiming the pesticide is safe was bogus.  So, I really have to wonder why we should believe them when they say on the teevee that they deliberately poisoned birds in the most recent report of a large die-off...or if they just made it up to stop people from panicking?

Although, as a certain sparrow pointed out to me, the USDA does in fact, poison birds in great numbers on a regular basis:
"In 2009 the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of USDA, says it poisoned 489,444 red-winged blackbirds in Texas and 461,669 in Louisiana. It also shot 4,217 blackbirds in California, 2,246 in North Dakota and 1,063 in Oregon according to its posted records.

We won't even talk about the starlings, crows, ravens, doves, geese, owls (yes owls) hawks, pigeons, ducks, larks, woodpeckers and coots our tax dollars annihilated to benefit ranchers, farmers and other private interests. Or the squirrels, rabbits, badgers, bobcats, beavers, woodchucks, coyotes, opossums, raccoons and mountain lions.
The he-men at the Wildlife Service also shot 29 great blue herons, 820 cattle egrets and 115 white-faced ibises in 2009, despite the known dangers of approaching shore birds....

...Last year, Illinois wildlife officials poisoned 90 tons of goldfish, gizzard and shad in the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal with the chemical Rotenone, which suffocates fish, to support the sport fishing industry. A year earlier they poisoned tens of thousands of goldfish, koi, bass, crappie, catfish and sunfish/bluegill hybrids in Chicago's Lincoln Park to rehab the pond."
And that's just birds and fish!  Our government agencies are also killing the few remaining wild bison!

"As if enough misery and suffering was not inflicted upon these magnificent beings the first time around, the buffalo, held sacred by several Native American tribes and cultures, are once again under attack by federal and state government agencies. After increasing pressure from Montana's livestock industry, the Montana Department of Livestock has been designated as the agency in charge of the current Interagency Bison Management Plan, while the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks are cooperating agencies that help assist in the shooting, hazing, capture and slaughter of the buffalo in facilities located both outside and inside of the park."
This is the only picture I could bring myself to post from that article - the rest are just too gruesome and heart-rending.
If it could be at all possible to find humor in the disastrous Australian floods, this author has a very sardonic and amusing take on the epic mess.

"For weeks now rain has been drumming in my ears, leaping off my corrugated steel roof, frothing through the rocks, spouting off the trees, and running, running, running past my house and down into the gully, into the little creek, into the bigger creek, and on to the Nerang river and out to sea at Southport. We've had more than 350mm in the last four days. My creek is running so high and so fast that I can't get out and my workforce can't get in. I can't even go for a walk under the dripping trees, because I'll come back festooned with leeches. In these conditions you can end up with a leech in your eye, and there's no one here to help get it out.
 The rain comes in pulses. When the noise abates, momentarily, I can see Mount Hobwee through veils of wet mist, and then I hear the advancing roar of the next pulse, and everything shuts down again. Behind my house a white cataract is charging down the gully through the rocks. When I'm in bed I can feel the thudding of its raw power through my bones.
So, yeah, as Australians say, the problem is rain....
...The rest of the world might well be scratching its head. Though the rise of the Brisbane river had been predicted for many days, owners left their boats on the river, some of them moored to pontoons, which were themselves ripped from their moorings. Literally hundreds of pontoons went careering down the river, crashing into unmanned powerboats that were already cannoning into each other. A long section of the riverside walkway broke away and became a waterborne missile. A floating restaurant was sucked under a bridge.
Some idiots went racing around in the brown surge on jetskis, unmindful of the half-submerged debris that could have smashed them and their jetskis to smithereens. People who insisted on staying in their apartments appear not to have understood that the electricity company would turn off the current, that their refrigerators would not be working, that they couldn't get to a supermarket and that the supermarkets that weren't flooded had no food left. They are the only people who don't know, unless they have a battery-powered radio, what's going on. It could be weeks before the water drains from Brisbane streets, so even these die-hards may have to ask for help from the emergency services.
The official view is that Australians in flood areas are being wonderful. They are pulling together, helping each other, staying cheerful, not complaining. When given the opportunity they make inspiring statements, that they'll rebuild their communities, stronger and better than ever. That they are Queenslanders, who don't give up. (And so forth.) What nobody is talking about yet, is whether the flood risk can be reduced.
The colour of the water reveals a terrible truth. What is being washed downstream is topsoil..."
Here is the latest thing for me to worry about, especially with youngest daughter living in the middle of a redwood grove on a steep slope above the Pacific in Santa Cruz - a superstorm that will no doubt lead to crushing landslides on the mountains!
"A group of more than 100 scientists and experts say in a new report that California faces the risk of a massive "superstorm" that could flood a quarter of the state's homes and cause $300 billion to $400 billion in damage. Researchers point out that the potential scale of destruction in this storm scenario is four or five times the amount of damage that could be wrought by a major earthquake."
Thank you so much for that information, scientists!  Okay I digress - back to air pollution:
"Under pressure from some members of Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is easing up on regulating global warming pollution from facilities that burn biomass for energy....
of course, the forest industry was celebrating, but advocates of health, not so much:
Meg Sheehan of the Stop Spewing Carbon Campaign in Cambridge, Mass., said the EPA was ignoring evidence that biomass is dirtier than coal and carbon from any source contributes to greenhouse gasses.

"I find it very disturbing that the Obama administration and Secretary Vilsack are punting on making this decision until after the next presidential election," she said. "I think it shows extreme disregard for the health of the American people."
Ann Weeks, senior counsel for the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston environmental group, welcomed a closer look at the science.
"All biomass does not provide immediate greenhouse gas mitigation, and in fact some may have greater climate impacts than fossil fuels," she said in a statement."

But the US is not alone - the EU is putting off doing anything as well:
"The European Union's executive has agreed to delay new laws forcing industry to take costly steps to tackle air pollutants that are blamed for respiratory problems and premature deaths in cities.

'Air pollution continues to cause damage to people and environment: premature deaths, shorter life expectancy, as well as substantial damage to ecosystems, crops and buildings,' Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said in a statement.

'These are real losses for our economy, productivity of our workforce and our nature.'"
Just how important is the quality of the air?  Hong Kong air is notoriously poor, but it's worth noting the implications as described in this article, titled:
"Visibility in Hong Kong has deteriorated so sharply over the last 50 years because of air pollution that variations in levels can even be used to predict mortality rates..."
"For every 6.5-km reduction in visibility, there was a corresponding 1.13 percent increase in the number of non-accidental deaths, such as from heart and respiratory causes...

Professor Lam Tai-hing, director of the School of Public Health, said: "The less you can see, the greater the harm. It is very important to believe in your eyes because at the moment, the government is still using outdated air quality objectives.

"Based on that, people are being told today's air quality is good or acceptable when in fact, if you follow the World Health Organization's air quality guidelines, it is very bad indeed."

Poor visibility was due to the concentration of pollutants such as respirable suspended particulates and nitrogen dioxide, Hedley said.
"Air pollutants increase the stickiness of elements in the blood ... With increased stickiness, blood cells stick together, they form a clot. If you form a clot, you may obstruct a vessel and if the vessel is in the heart or the head, you get a heart attack or a stroke," Hedley said. 
"In people who are susceptible, such as those with diabetes, they begin to experience serious degradation to their health, they will become sick and may have a shorter life expectancy." 
Along these lines I took a look at a Munich Re press release, about the overall picture of so-called "natural" catastrophes for 2010, which broke records all over the place.  Cable teevee may be debating climate change, but the insurance companies are under no illusions.  Lucky for them, the worst of the damage from flooding in poor places like Pakistan isn't insured in the first place.  Here's what they said about the incendiary Russian heat wave last summer, in marked contrast to reports at the time:

"At least 56,000 people died as a result of heat and air pollution, making it the most deadly natural disaster in Russia's history."

I tried to find out more about the breakdown for falling tree damage after I found this statement and graphs:
"The price to insurance companies for thunderstorm damage alone amounted to more than $9 billion, underscoring a 500 percent rise in the average yearly loss from that peril since 1980."

But so far, it isn't available.  That will probably change as it becomes apparent that falling dead trees deserve a category all by themselves.  Below are two responses to my inquiries.

Dear Gail,

I checked with our experts, and they noted that although tropospheric ozone is definitely an environmental and health hazard, we have not heard or seen any evidence that it is leading to more tree/tree limb collapse during natural disasters. We also cannot determine what proportion of losses would be due to this type of damage, as opposed to direct wind damage, etc.

Best regards,

Terese Rosenthal

Dear Mrs. Zawacki,

I am answering Your email on behalf of Ernst Rauch who is out of office right now.

Our historic loss data base (
Munich Re NatCat-SERVICE) cumulates loss date for very differentnatural hazard events around the world and tries to be as precise as possible with the description of the major loss contributions for each event. However, a detailed attribution as e.g. falling trees is not possible since major contributions in big (thunder-)storm events are more likely to come from either wind damage or precipitation-induced flash floods.

As You point out correctly, increasing population has a big impact on increasing loss trends. 
Urban sprawl as well as growth of wealth and values are the mayor drivers for the observed increase in losses. At present time it is still very difficult to evaluate the true proportions of how much of the loss trends are driven by these socio-economic developments and how much is driven by a (meteorologically proven) increase in strong thunder storm events in certain areas. In fact we are doing research on this issue in a cooperation together with the London School of Economics, London, UK. So far it remains clear, too, that the majority of the trend drivers has to be attributed to the socio-economic factors and not to climate change. However, we also see certain trends growing faster than the socio-economic developments which - in a very speculative way! - allows the interpretation that climate change or (at least) variability in climate has an impact on our historic loss data.

But at this point it would not make much sense for us to put possible effects of ozone in our focus.

I hope I could answer Your questions with my comments.
Thank You for pointing us to Your blog.

Jan Eichner

Dr. Jan Eichner
Natural Hazard Research
Geo Risks Research / Corporate Climate Centre
Munich Reinsurance Company AG
Koeniginstrasse 107, 80802 Munich, Germany


  1. I heard the EPA is planning to OK the use of a 15% ethanol blend of gasoline very soon. This can only be more bad news if PAN increases with this change. The 15% is to be used in only the newest 2006 and later vehicles. That pretty much eliminates any 'greenness' that these cars might possess.

    I'm sticking with my '89 Toyota that still gets 40 mpg on straight gasoline, 5% ethanol and 10% ethanol blends.

    How far we have come, NOT!

    Great letter to Dr. James Hansen. Thanks.
    Why not send it as a letter to the editor of several local papers including mine? I really like the last paragraph.

    I suppose one of the reasons that the predators of small forest critters are making such a killing this year is because there is no (that's right) growth near the forest floor for them to hide in.
    I went into the woods where usually I hear squirrels running to hide as I approach. Today I didn't hear one. Temp was 45 F.

    Waiting for the end is no fun at all.

  2. Excellent point, Catman! Of course, the little animals have less cover - and so do the birds. Even with the leaves down, there are also fewer branches. I can see so much further into the woods now - I can see the contour of hills I never knew existed.

  3. Gail -I think I understand how you present such a unique view and why your voice is so important.

    Unlike most mass media and so many bloggers - You deliver messages, and then you remember what you said. And each new post adds meaning.

    We all are so skilled at forgetting and letting go. We may learn and notice, but then we resume much of our high carbon denialist living.

    It is difficult to avoid added stress and anxiety, which gets in the way of learning. Thanks for keeping the information flowing and for blazing new ground

  4. Still another reason for a shortage of food for the critters might be a shortage of insects. Like who'd notice?

    So we have still another sickened branch in the tree of life. Of the 8 instances of 'insects' in your article, all were negative and associated with disease. Cultural bias, maybe.

    Insects are food for something, which will go hungary.
    Every living thing is food for other living things.

    Our civilization sure has been cutting away those branches that support the evolved species we see in our world. And fast!

  5. Interesting Catman:

    Only one of the 5 great extinction events in earth history affected insects:

    Wonder if this one will?

  6. Insects breath oxygen, don't they? So they'll be gone when the atmosphere goes aerobic. That won't happen everywhere at the same time. The oxygen content of the atmosphere will gradually go to zero, and species each have their minimum oxygen requirement.

    My vote for the greatest extent of environmental destruction during our current extinction: atmosphere goes aerobic, while liquid water continues to exist on the earth's surface.

    That's just my 'gut' feeling.

  7. Anaerobic, never trust your spell checker.


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