Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences."

- Robert Louis Stevenson

I have been thinking about how consequences, when delayed, eventually become quite a banquet - as will be articulated all the way at the end of this post (after several detours) in Professor Ugo Bardi's models demonstrating various configurations of the Seneca Cliff.  

First, here is a snippet from an essay about the Occupy Wall Street movement, well worth reading in its entirety, called "No Demand is Big Enough" by Charles Eisenstein:

"Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for its lack of clear demands, but how do we issue demands, when what we really want is nothing less than the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible? No demand is big enough. We could make lists of demands for new public policies: tax the wealthy, raise the minimum wage, protect the environment, end the wars, regulate the banks. While we know these are positive steps, they aren't quite what motivated people to occupy Wall Street. What needs attention is something deeper: the power structures, ideologies, and institutions that prevented these steps from being taken years ago; indeed, that made these steps even necessary."
The Red Cube, with Zuccotti Park beyond, 1st week of OWS
"If politicians are disconnected from the real world of human suffering and ecosystem collapse, all the more disconnected are the financial wizards of Wall Street. Behind their computer screens, they occupy a world of pure symbol, manipulating numbers and computer bits. Occupy Wall Street punctures their bubble of pretense as well, reconnects them with the human consequences of the god they serve, and perhaps with their own consciences and humanity too. Only in a hallucination could someone imagine that the unsustainable can last forever; in puncturing their bubble, we remind them that the money game is nearing its end. It can be perpetuated for a while longer, perhaps, but only at great and growing cost. We, the 99%, are paying that cost right now, and as the environment and the social fabric decay, the 1% will soon feel it too. We want those who operate and serve the financial system to wake up and see before it is too late."

He concludes:

"The truth is dwindling rain forests, spreading deserts, mass tree die-offs on every continent; looted pensions, groaning burdens of student debt, people working two or three dead end jobs; children eating dirt in Haiti, elders choosing between food and medicine... the list is endless, and we will make it no longer possible to hold it in disconnection from the money system. That is why we converge on Wall Street, and anywhere that finance holds sway. You have lulled us into complacency for long enough with illusions and false hopes. We the people are awakening and we will not go back to sleep."
The Last Nightingale - album cover by Ralph Steadman
Along these lines let me recommend another brilliant rumination, "Rise of the Machines, Why We Keep Coming Back to H.G. Wells' Visions of a Dystopian Future".  It's worth setting aside some time to read the whole fascinating investigation into his life and books, which also has embedded some riveting clips of movie based on his work, and others in the same tradition.  For the purposes of Wit's End though, I'm going to spoil it and just give away the ending:

"By 1946, the year that Wells died, civilization experienced yet another all-nation conflagration — one that included the use of the atomic weapons he had foreseen three decades earlier. Most of us, of course, share few of the aforementioned utopian socialist hopes. What we do take from Wells is the nagging suspicion that we are not in control, that the technologies we so gleefully develop will continuously backfire on us in ever more horrific ways, and that our love of individual freedom is a collective extermination pact.
"In this context, “history,” from now on, is the story of how we as a species repeatedly dodge that mass suicide at the last minute, until at last we don’t. That, not his utopian socialism, is the Wellsian vision of the future that we find so compelling — the version told in his novels and made into movies, to be retold in myriad new forms for as long as we survive."

Hmmm.  "Our love of individual freedom is an extermination pact".  I can read that in the TREE leaves!

This photo supplements a Boston Globe story about tourists who are gratified - oh yeah! - to be distracted from the dismally disappointing display of fall foliage in New England, by the wreckage from the flooding.  The macabre headline reads:

Vermont tourists focus on storm’s aftermath

Leaf-peepers in Vermont enthralled by scenes of deluge’s damage

The leaves, too, are being blamed on Irene - despite the fact that trees far to the west of the path of that hurricane are in the exact same condition!

So I sent the following letter to the reporter and the editor:

Dear Editor and Mr. Abel,

I am writing about the article regarding the aftermath of the flood, and the condition of foliage in Vermont.

Very few people realize that the reason the leaves look drab is actually because of ozone pollution, not Irene.  Leaves are drab where I live in New Jersey, they are drab across the country all the way to California.  They have been exhibiting more symptoms of damage over the past several years, prior to the hurricane.  In fact, trees are dying at a rapidly accelerating rate all over the world, as the background levels of tropospheric ozone are inexorably rising.  Ozone is toxic to all biota.

It's rather ironic that people drive from Texas to look at leaves in New England, since the emissions from their car engine are destroying the beauty they have come to admire...not to mention, that climate change from burning fossil and biofuels is what caused the record-breaking extreme weather events of the past year, including the floods.

Perhaps you could educate your readers on this point.  I publish a blog where there are many links to scientific research about the effects of ozone on vegetation, and photographs of symptoms on leaves, if you are interested in the facts.


Gail Zawacki
Oldwick, NJ

I can assure you that letter will never be printed.

The Center for Public Integrity published an article titled, "Shelved Ozone Standard Would Have Had Modest Impact on Business, Politics".  So why on earth did Obama tell EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the mother of an asthmatic, that she couldn't tighten the regulations according to the best available science - a repudiation that reportedly caused her to seriously consider resignation?  The story included this brief description of tropospheric ozone:

"Because of ozone’s adverse impacts on plants and animals, the EPA limits it under the Clean Air Act. Ground-level ozone, commonly known as smog, is expensive to reduce because it comes from a wide variety of sources. Compounds in the emissions from power plants, factories, and automobiles react with sunlight to form ozone."

and described the political debacle:

"The ozone standard EPA actually submitted for interagency review in July, following months of haggling with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, was the weakest – and cheapest – option approved by the agency’s independent scientific advisors.
The proposed new limit, which would have lowered the allowable concentration of ozone in the air from 84 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion, could have cost $19 billion to $25 billion to implement, according to the EPA’s analysis. But the costs of the proposed 70 parts per billion standard would have been offset, the analysis said, by financial benefits ranging from $11 billion to $31 billion and health benefits that include 4,300 deaths avoided annually.
Opponents of the ozone rule regularly cited a $90 billion price tag, but that figure was only for the most stringent option raised by an EPA advisory board, a standard of 60 parts per billion. That limit was never seriously considered within the agency, said David McKee, a former project manager in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, who retired in December."
So, currently the standard is 84...the science advisory board recommended 60...and we couldn't even get 70.  The safe level - the natural level that current living species on this planet have evolved to absorb - is essentially ZERO.  The American Lung Association made this clever ad, but it wasn't nearly as potent as the Chamber of Commerce in this White House, apparently.

This was not the least of the distressing things I have come across recently.  Perhaps the one that is most haunting my dreams - because it adheres so closely to my instinctive suspicion that the trajectory of collapse will be insanely rapid, taking all but the most pessimistic doomers by surprise - is the blog post at Cassandra's Legacy, mentioned at the top.
"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."  - Lucius Anneaus Seneca

Although that graph speaks volumes, it is of course it is well worth reading the entire analysis...which is quite complex, but here is a sample:

"It seems that, indeed, we are missing an element that, instead, is present in the world models of "The Limits to Growth" study. What we are missing is pollution or, better said, the effects of pollution. In the simple model above, degraded energy is harmlessly dissipated to space; it has no effect on the other elements of the model. But we know that, in the real world, that is not true. Pollution has a cost: money and resources must be spent to fight it; be it water or air poisoning or effects such as global warming."
Lastly, here is another story about the lackluster showing of fall foliage, an MSNBC interview featuring Dr. Reese Halter, a genuine tree hugger who informed the audience that climate change is the primary cause.  I guess not everyone has forgotten that leaves used to turn ecstatically colorful while remaining supple, glossy, and smooth!  Naturally, I wrote him, too - the exchange is below.  (And that will be the last of this post, since I've been chastised by more than one reader for overly long and convoluted entries.  Well, cry me a river!  I can't help it if everything is failing faster and sooner than predicted!  And welcome to my world...)

Dear Dr. Reese,

A friend of mine sent me a clip of your interview on MSNBC about leaves turning fall color late.

From my observation, they are not merely late, they aren't turning normal fall color at all, and this has been an accelerating trend since 2008.  I wonder if you have considered that the main reason leaves are turning brown and shriveling up is that they are being injured by exposure to inexorably rising levels of background tropospheric ozone?

For about a year I thought the underlying issue leaves on trees were wilting, because the damage is so widespread, must be a change in precipitation patterns because of global warming.  However, this explanation turns out to not be satisfactory, because it does not account for the fact that annual tropical plants being watered in pots, and even water plants like lilies and lotus that are always in water, have identically shrunken, singed and stippled foliage.  Thus I eventually concluded that only something about the composition of the atmosphere can fully account for the empirical facts.

Since then (2009) I have been reading everything I can find about the effects of exposure to ozone.  It turns out to have been well researched and demonstrated that air pollution is even more toxic to plantlife than it is to people.  It has also been proven that vegetation that has been compromised by ozone is more likely to succumb to opportunistic attacks from insects, disease and fungus, an extremely interesting fact in regards to bark beetle in the west, as well as the ubiquitous rampages of other species-specific attacks around the world.

This is really quite important and I am writing you because it is critical that someone with authority inform the public that our relentless burning of fuel is going to cause the ecosystem to collapse, which is an existential threat.  It's critical that people understand the only way to survive is to embrace a drastic program of energy conservation.

Another possibly even more urgent issue may be that burning biofuels forms worse and more persistent ozone because of the increase in NOx emissions over fossil fuels.  If this is what underlies the very dramatic and sudden decline in forest health, then it would be much easier to simply stop using biofuels, and return to the slightly slower pace of environmental devastation expected from climate change.

Please contact me if you have any questions or interest in pursuing this topic.  It has been distinctly unpopular with other biologists, foresters, and climate scientists so far.  But I'm hopeful that eventually some professional will be able to think outside the box and see what is actually, rather obvious if you simply examine the evidence.

I've been publishing a blog (Wit's End) where I collect links to scientific research at the top on the "Basic Premise" page, and post photographs of the symptoms of plants damaged by ozone.  I've done two comparative studies of fall foliage over time in the same places - one in northern New Jersey, and one in Central Park.  Here is a post that includes information from the FACE experiments about insects and disease increasing as a result of ozone, which didn't impress Jim Bouldin, the resident forester at Real Climate, in the least.  Whoever has the courage to tackle this "intractable problem" - as somebody ultimately will have to, because it is true - will be known as a visionary maverick.  Perhaps that will be you.

Thank you so much for your attention,


Gail Zawacki
Oldwick, NJ

Good call Gail. The toxicity we are belching into the biosphere is harming/killing all life.

In fact we are spewing so much sulphuric acid into the stratosphere that it, nitric acid and cfcs (hangin around) caused that MASSIVE hole (in conjunction with global warming) in the Arctic ozone layer (never recorded before) this spring.

Believe me when I say I am working night and day to bring these and so many other awful environmental disasters to the publics attention. Beneath is a recent piece from Huffington.

I've got 2 very cool books out shortly on bees and beetles/climate change.

Keep the faith and keep those observations coming (to me).

Best, Dr Reese

Dear Dr. Reese,

Thanks so much for your response! Can I quote you on that?  I also appreciated the links to your books and article in HuffPo.

I do think that it would be extremely useful if experts such as yourself drew a direct line between what you so accurately describe as the "toxicity we are belching" and the imminent death of trees - and distinguish between that and longer term threats such as climate change, and secondary impacts, such as bark beetle infestations, which is to ozone what pneumonia is to AIDS.  As a friend who is a forestry expert noted last week, the damage - such as yellowing needles on California redwoods, which is what we were looking at - is far too uniform to be attributable to isolated outbreaks of insects, disease or fungus. 

If it were solely, or even mainly, temperature and precipitation differences from climate change caused largely by CO2, then we might as well pretty much just give up, because that is more or less permanently baked in the cake - and the CO2 we have already released is going to persist for up to 1,000 years, continuing to warm and destabilize weather.

On the other hand, and it's a hugely relevant distinction, ozone does not persist very long at all.  We could save what is left of the ecosystem, and vastly improve it - we still have living, if struggling, specimens, after all - if we substantially ceased creating ozone precursors.

It is for this reason I would like to see some leadership on this essential aspect and unique consequence of specific greenhouse gas emissions.

Thank you again for your attention,

Gail Zawacki

Sure quote me.
There is a direct link.
Sulphuric acid comes from burning coal. We are burning more now than ever before. Warmer temps near the Earth have created colder temps in the upper troposphere, hence the Northern Hemisphere ozone hole. It is all connected Gail.
Dr Reese

But, everything I read says that the sulphur dioxide has been reduced by scrubbers.  Maybe not for China, I don't know.  But there is so much blah blah blah saying that acid rain is a problem that has been solved.

Are you saying that isn't true?  Wouldn't surprise me!  But it's NOT the official version.

Yes scrubbers are removing most but clearly not all of it. We are burning an immense amount of coal to the extent that some 3,000 tons of mercury are entering the biosphere every year from it and mostly winding up in the Arctic, which is melting, and mercury is insidiously infiltrating the entire marine ecosystem, worldwide...


  1. Another great posting!

    We live in interesting times.


  2. I love your blog posts Gail, you're a hero. None of them are overly long. Thanks for everything you do.

  3. Aw shucks! Thank you!!! Both of you.

    But no more posts for a bit, I'm heading to Zuccotti Square, and I don't dare bring my computer...


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