Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ozone Research and Vegetative Impacts Worse Case Scenarios by Ray Knighton, USDA

Today I have reproduced the slides used in a presentation by Ray Knighton of the USDA in 2006, which was given as part of the Agricultural Air Quality Task Force Meeting.  Even without his verbal accompaniment, they represent a concise primer for what ozone does to crops, and range in expression from wholly unwarranted silly cheeriness, to thinly veiled panic, as we shall see.
This is the same Ray Knighton referred to in the minutes of last July's annual meeting of the NE-1013, who announced to those academics that there will be no funding to train new scientists to study ozone:

"Reduced funding for ozone research and challenges experienced obtaining funding were also discussed. Concern was voiced and discussed about the future of the study of plant response to ozone as a whole generation of scientists is being lost now due to lack of funding with no new scientists being trained, while this air pollutant continues to be an increasing problem. Ray Knighton gave a presentation via conference call. General budgetary constraints and funding challenges at the federal level were described. Lack of funding for travel was the reason Ray was only able to attend the meeting remotely, as was also the case for most committee members who did not attend in person."
That is pathetic considering that already in 2006, these scientists understood the serious threat ozone poses to our food supply, not to mention, a threat which is growing non-linearly as background levels increase.  But that comes a little later in the show.
Is there any point in embellishing those bullet points?  1.  Ozone travels; 2. the constant background level of ozone adversely impacts crops and forests; and 3.  the regulators understand that they cannot comply with stricter (safe) standards because of inexorably increasingly high background levels.
Keep in mind that anyone who bothered to look during the past three growing seasons would find precisely those symptoms of stippling depicted - and often even more severe chlorosis, necrosis and marginal leaf burn - on virtually every single leaf!
These describe the losses of direct damage from exposure, but far worse occurs when plants that are compromised become more vulnerable to insects, disease and fungus.
Looking at this chart can we expect anything if not skyrocketing food prices?
The next slides are meant to indicate the several methods that scientists have used to determine that ozone is toxic to vegetation.  It isn't just ONE, but many different types of experiments which have all determined the same thing.  This isn't just a couple of ozonistas making wild pronouncements!
In addition to lab work there have been major, long-term field experiments.
Read says that modelers overestimated CO2 sequestration because they do not account for O3.  Oops, better be can get into trouble in the climate change world for suggesting that!
In addition to trees, much work has been done with crops.  Now, why would the USDA devote so many resources to studying ozone impacts and ways to thwart them, if it was an inconsequential threat?  Answer...they wouldn't, if it weren't a significant threat to food supplies.
The following numbers are just plain scary especially when you consider that,  along with everything else in climate science predictions, the real progression is much faster than anyone anticipated.
Note:  the results were worse in the field experiments than expected from laboratory tests - probably because of the synergistic effects of other variables, especially the aforementioned insects, disease and fungus that preferentially attack plants damaged from exposure to ozone.
This is where it gets cute - "...if we do not find a solution."  What is the solution?  Oh, probably the end of industrial civilization, why pretend?
The first point is so classic - we have to remain competitive with South America!  Note also:  ALL varieties show at least *some* yield loss.  And I don't know why people continue to be perplexed that plants haven't managed to evolve tolerance to ozone in the past hundred years - how long do they think evolution takes?  I doubt we've got the tens of thousands of years that would be required for plants to evolve, any more than it could take less than that for the corals and shellfish to adjust to ocean acidification in a matter of a few decades.  I think people really need to brush up on natural selection and how LONG that takes!
Yep.  Other kinds of pollution are bad for plants too - but nothing beats ozone.  This was discovered in the 1950's and hasn't changed one iota.
Okay this is where the frantic starts to creep in.  It's not just smaller harvests - it is harvests that don't provide the same amount of nutrition to cows, sheep, pigs and horses.  So the problem becomes magnified.
I kind of like this guy Ray.  I'm sure it wasn't HIS idea to defund ozone research, and besides, parse this next slide.
He makes the obvious disclaimers about how complex the systems are and how difficult it is to attribute effects to any one agent but then with this HUGE *Nevertheless* he segues into "the compelling weight of evidence results from the convergence of results from many various and disparate assessment methods including chamber and free air exposure, crop yield and tree seedling biomass experimental studies, foliar injury data from biomonitoring plots and modeled mature tree growth."
Hey, wasn't I just saying that!  Trees are dying and there is a compelling weight of evidence that ozone is the cause.
The last point in the slide above is absolutely key although I don't know if Mr. Knighton realizes it:  "Due to the non-linear shape of many crop-ozone dose-response curves, we might expect a disproportionately larger effect for each unit increase in global average ozone concentrations."  That, my friends, is another way to describe the precipitous build-up to a tipping point, which judging by the rapidly deteriorating condition of trees, happens to be just about where we are at the moment.
The absurdity has fully arrived.  First of all, you have to wonder...exactly WHAT are the worse case scenarios that may come to pass?  Do these scientists and regulators talk about that, behind closed doors?  Furthermore, even IF there could be genetically altered crops bred to survive in the increasingly poisonous invisible soup created from emissions of fuel and fertilizer - IF - what the hell good is that going to do for the infinitely greater number and variety of WILD plants and trees...vegetation that happens to be essential for life to exist on earth, including our own??  Well, NOTHING that's what!  Look below - he ends by looking forward to "useful products".  Magic potions, perhaps?

I actually have amassed quite a few other new articles, studies, reports and books about ozone and the nitrogen cascade over a busy Christmas...and it's going to take some time to sort through them - so I think I'll post just this for now.

I hope everyone is having a lovely holiday!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Everybody should read this - no, Really!

Following is the complete transcript of a lecture, titled, "Are Humans Unsustainable by Nature?" by William Rees...because it is essential reading.  You can click here for a video of his talk, also worth watching in its entirety.  I am without superlatives extravagant enough to describe how comprehensive, erudite and complete is his analysis of our converging catastrophic convulsions.  I have never come across a more eloquent weaving of the complex and interacting, synergistic mix of impending collapse - including the science of climate change, with moral questions surrounding an equitable justice of footprints; global environmental degradation and pollution; overpopulation; peak oil and other commodities; pervasive and endemic political corruption; the income a history of the deliberately promulgated paradigm of endless growth and a consumer culture...all wrapped up like a Christmas present, in an evolutionary and fundamental solution to Fermi's paradox - by one person!

If you don't choose to read his words, and watch his presentation, you will have no one but yourself to blame when Nature's Pitchfork rips your house into shreds with a tornado, or inundates you with unprecedented rain and floods, or perhaps instead parches you into a starving overheated crisp.

Are Humans Unsustainable by Nature?”

William E. Rees
2007 Trudeau Fellow
University of British Columbia
School of Community and Regional Planning
[9674 words]
Trudeau Lecture
Memorial University of Newfoundland, January 28, 2009

Introduction: The State of the World ‘in Light of Human Evolution’

This paper is an exploration of an extended and admittedly somewhat discomforting hypothesis,
namely that the human species, H. sapiens, is unsustainable by nature. In short, I am proposing
the deteriorating state of the biophysical world and the threat that it poses to the human prospect
is a natural outcome of what humans themselves have evolved to be. Initially, some of you may
take this proposition to be radically nonsensical. By the end, however, I hope you will see that
the main threads of my argument, many of which have been recognized for centuries, have
merely wanted knitting into whole cloth.

Most of you will be well aware of the context for this discussion. People are destroying their
ecosystems; we are undermining the life-support functions of the ecosphere. Our best science
warns that the human enterprise has already overshot the long-term carrying capacity of Earth.
According to the latest (fairly conservative) estimates by the World Wide Fund for Nature, the
human ecological footprint exceeds global biocapacity by almost 30% (WWF 2008).

This should come as no surprise. Back in 1992 (the year of the first United Nations Conference
on Environment and Development) the Union of Concerned Scientists issued its famous World
Scientists’ Warning to Humanity:

“We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of
what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated” (UCS 1992).

No wafflly ambiguity there! Nevertheless, in the course of the subsequent decade—a decade
characterized by increasingly rousing rhetoric on the needed shift to ‘sustainable
development’—ecological trends generally worsened. Thus in 2005, the authors of Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment (the most comprehensive examination of the state of the ecosphere ever
undertaken) were moved to echo the UCS’s statement in their own summary document:

“At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural
functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted” (MEA 2005, p.5).

And still the dismal data accumulate. One recent peer-reviewed climate change analysis
concludes that “an optimistic interpretation of the current framing of climate change implies that
stabilization much below 650 ppmv CO2 is improbable.”

To stabilize at 650 ppmv CO2e, the majority of OECD nations would have to begin “draconian” emission reductions within a decade. Thus, unless we can reconcile economic growth with unprecedented rates of decarbonisation—in excess of 6% per year—this would require a planned economic recession (Anderson and Bows, 2008). If this seems outrageous, consider that 650 ppmv CO2e implies a catastrophic 4 C° mean global temperature increase—the impact of a major recession, planned or not, would be mild by comparison.

In effect, the world’s top scientists are warning that staying our growth-based path to global
development virtually guarantees catastrophe for billions of people and threatens the possibility
of maintaining a complex global civilization. Such warnings should galvanize any selfproclaimed science-based culture to corrective action. Nevertheless—and this is really the starting point for our analysis—there is scant evidence that national governments, the United Nations or other official international organizations have begun openly to contemplate the implications for humanity if the scientists are right, let alone articulate in public the kind of policy responses the science evokes. Despite decades of accumulating evidence and growing anxiety about the risks of global change, the modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial. Just what is going on here? How can we make sense of such conflicting realities?

There is, of course, no shortage of explanations for the ecological crisis. No doubt it can be traced, in part, to technological hubris and humans’ inflated sense of invulnerability; some blame it on ignorance, greed, and even the desperation of impoverished people; others point to the flawed structure of industrial capitalism or the sheer momentum of growth-bound technoindustrial society. No doubt all of these reasons are valid, some more than others and at different times and places, but each such explanation has the superficial sheen of proximal cause. What we really want to know is the root source of human greed, why some people are propelled by desperation and just how industrial capitalism came to be the way it is. This paper therefore advances a more distal cause of our common dilemma, one that lies beneath all the others.

The explanation we explore below was actually inspired by a phrase first penned by famed
Russian-born geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1964: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (Dobzhansky 1964, p.449)

To get straight to the point, my thesis is that we will only fully understand the modern sustainability conundrum and society’s apparent paralysis in the face of it, if we examine its root causes in human evolutionary biology.

Premise 1:  H. sapiens is an evolved species

My argument begins from two related and, I hope, non-controversial premises. The first should already be obvious: H. sapiens is an evolved species like all the others and human evolution, like that of all the others, has been shaped by the forces of natural selection. Since individual and emergent social behaviour are as much exposed to selective pressure as any other geneticallyinfluenced human quality, it is therefore not much of a leap to extend Dobzhansky’s principle to assert that nothing in human affairs—including much of economic and socio-political behaviour— makes sense except in the light of evolution. This is not to say that other factors are not involved. Rather, I am arguing that the picture is unintelligibly incomplete unless we factor in the bio-evolutionary contribution.

It is true, of course, that human evolution differs significantly from that of other species. Most
significantly, human evolution is now determined as much or more by socio-cultural factors
(memes) as by biological factors (genes).

Now everyone knows that a ‘gene’ represents a unit of genetic information encoded in DNA that
is passed from parent to offspring and that interacts with ‘the environment’ to help determine the
physical and behavioural phenotype (the ‘appearance’) of the individual. But fewer people are familiar with the concept of the ‘meme’ first introduced by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins in 1976 (Dawkins 1976). A ‘meme’ is a unit of cultural information that, like a gene, can be passed between generations and that influences the ‘phenotype’ of the culture.  A meme can be a persistent belief, an entrenched assumption, a particular value, a scientific concept or a working technology.  Memes are thus the basis of cultural inheritance. Significantly, memes differ from genes in that they can be shared and spread rapidly among living individuals in the same generation or population.

Indeed, people acquire much of their memetic endowments passively, just by being exposed to a
particular cultural environment and various social contexts, including schools, religious institutions and the family home. Once acquired, such ‘cultural programming’ asserts considerable, often subconscious, influence over both individual and group behaviour. (More on this to follow.) While an individual’s meme-based cultural programming can be modified, we shall see that humans are often extremely resistant to change.

Genetic science tells us that genes generally don’t perform solo. Many complex characteristics under genetic control are ‘polygenetic,’ i.e., they are influenced by several genes acting in consort as what might be called a ‘gene complex.’ Thus, we can extend the analogy and refer to any coherent, integrated set of memes that characterize a particular ideology, paradigm, discipline or worldview as a ‘meme complex.’

Most importantly in the present context, meme-theory holds that memes, like genes, vary within and between populations, are exposed to competition, can mutate, and will be exposed to varying biophysical and socio-cultural environments. In other words, memes are subject to a form of natural selection and evolve over time. It follows that if a meme or meme complex becomes maladaptive under particular environmental circumstances it may be eliminated or ‘selected out.’

Thus, while memetic evolution is theoretically much faster than the genetic variety, there may be
circumstances in which it is not fast enough. In extreme circumstances, whole societies stuck with maladaptive meme-complexes have foundered and collapsed.

Premise 2: H. sapiens as work-in-progress

My second premise is that human evolution is incomplete. We may think of ourselves as the pinnacle of earthly evolution but H. sapiens remains very much a work in progress. We can get a good sense of humanity-in-transition by considering just the brain. Neurologist Paul MacLean, argued that the human brain has evolved in at least three overlapping phases, each with a corresponding anatomical sub-component having distinct functions, memory and ‘intelligence.’

MacLean referred to the three quasi-independent structures of the human brain as the reptilian or
R-complex (the brainstem and cerebellum), the limbic or paleo-mammalian system and the neocortex or neo-mammalian brain (MacLean, 1990):

• The reptilian complex is concerned with autonomic functions associated with the body’s physical survival (e.g., circulation and breathing). It also influences instinctive social behaviour (e.g., pertaining to territoriality, social stature, mating and dominance), executes the fight or flight response and controls other mainly hard-wired ritualistic or instinctive behaviours.

• The limbic system is the primary seat of emotions (e.g., happiness, sorrow, pleasure, pain), personal identity and related behavioural responses (e.g., sexual behaviour, play, emotional bonding, separation calls, fighting, fleeing). It also houses our affective (emotion-charged) memories and seems to be the seat of our value judgements and informed intuition.

• The neo-cortex or ‘rational brain’ is the most recent elaboration but occupies over two thirds of the human brain by volume. More importantly, it is responsible for the higher cognitive functions that distinguish humans from other mammals; it is the seat of consciousness and the locus of abstract thought, reason and logic. It makes us uniquely capable of moral judgement and forward planning. The neo-cortex facilitates language, speech and writing and, with these, the very possibility of civilization.

Although some critics consider MacLean’s conceptual separation of major brain components to be somewhat simplistic, animal and human research has generally supported the fundamental elements of the theory (Panksepp 1998). In any event, however localized its various functions, the healthy brain generally acts as an integrated whole—the three sub-brain systems are intricately interconnected, each continuously influencing the others (e.g., emotions stimulate thought and thought may trigger emotion).

The emergent behaviour and overall personality of the individual is thus a melding of thoughts, emotions and instincts. However, under particular circumstances, one of the sub-brains, with its distinct capacities and limitations, may assume the dominant role. Significantly, the individual may not be fully aware of what part of the brain is in control.

This last point is particularly important in the context of (un)sustainability. Humans think of
themselves as uniquely self-aware and rational. However, because of the seeming success of the
enlightenment project and subsequent scientific revolution in giving humans mastery over the
physical world, western society has come to overestimate the power of mindful intelligence and
reason. We seemingly ‘live’ in consciousness conferred by the human neo-cortex but remain
paradoxically unaware of critical influences over our individual and group behaviour that spring
from the lower brain centres (see Buchannan 2007). The circumstances in which logic and
reason dominate may still actually be limited and their effect relatively trivial in the grand
evolutionary context.

What this implies is that much of expressed human behaviour, from routine one-on-one social
interaction to international political posturing, is shaped, in part, by innate subconscious mental
processes and their associated chemical/hormonal agents.  Most importantly, in situations of
conflict or resource scarcity, social/political/behavioural predispositions that operate beneath
consciousness (i.e., in the limbic system and reptilian brain stem) may well override higher logic
and rational thought in delivering a response. You will all be aware—perhaps even from
personal experience?—that passion frequently trumps reason.

The main point to take from this is that humanity is a conflicted species, torn on the one hand
between what reason and moral judgement says we should do and what pure emotion or baser
instincts command us to do. With no knowledge of its neurological basis, the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola nevertheless recognized the tension. He saw humanity’s unique capacity for reason as a bridge to godliness and feared the consequences
of ‘loosing it’ to more primitive drives:

“Man was created by nature in such a way that reason might dominate the senses and that by its law all rage and desire of passion and lust might be restrained, but when the image of God has been forgotten… we begin to serve the beasts within us…” (Mirandola,  paraphrased from his Oration on the Dignity of Man [1486]).

Famed modern-day neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who studies the actual neuro-chemical
mechanisms of such internal conflict, expressed the same idea as follows: “There are indeed potions in our own bodies and brains capable of forcing on us behaviours that we may or may not be able to suppress by strong resolution” (Damasio, 1994, p.121).

Working Hypothesis: Humanity is Unsustainable by Nature

With this as background, let me advance the following double-barrelled elaboration of my
opening hypothesis:

Unsustainability is an inevitable emergent property of the systemic interaction between techno-industrial society, as presently conceived, and the ecosphere. Both purely innate (genetic) and quasi-cultural behavioural factors are involved.

Some explanation is in order. For present purposes we will define ‘emergent property’ as a characteristic, quality or phenomenon that arises from the particular interaction of two complex systems. In this case, the interacting systems are techno-industrial society and the ecosphere.  Thus, I am arguing that the various symptoms of unsustainability, from fisheries collapses to human-induced elements of climate change, emerge from fundamental incompatibilities between the structure and behaviour of natural ecosystems and the structure and behaviour of the human enterprise. Ecosystem behaviour is wholly determined by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology and ultimately governed by the laws of thermodynamics. The human enterprise is subject to those same laws, but its actual behaviour is now as much influenced by various socially-constructed technological and conceptual memes. Problems emerge when, for example, effects of techno-cultural innovations overwhelm the natural processes that ultimately sustain the integrated whole.  (E.g., fish-catching technology and fishers’ strategies now vastly outstrip the escape mechanisms and reproductive capacities of fish stocks.)

The biological drivers

Just what are the genetic presets that are pressing us toward the brink? The suspect biological drivers are basic reproductive and survival instincts that humans share with all other species.

Many experiments with organisms ranging from bacteria cultured in Petri dishes to reindeer introduced to previously uninhabited islands reveal the following universal properties of life:  unless or until constrained by negative feedback, all species populations expand to occupy all accessible habitats and to use all available resources. Moreover, in the competition for habitat and resources, evolution favours individuals who are most adept at satisfying their short-term selfish needs whether by strictly competitive or by cooperative means, despite potential negative consequences down the road—i.e., a tendency to discount the future has evolved by natural selection.

As my friend and colleague Dr Ronald Brooks argues, the potential for ecological destruction “is not merely a cultural trait, or even a [human] species trait, but a characteristic of any species that has evolved by Darwinian selection” (Brooks 2001, p. 72).

Of course, H. sapiens has always had to compete with other consumer species for food and other
resources and there is little doubt that humans have prevailed in the competition. In particular, written language and cumulative technology—unique assemblages of meme complexes—give us a powerful ‘leg up’ in the Darwinian struggle. As a result H. sapiens has the greatest geographic range of any ecologically comparable species. There is no sizable patch of habitable landscape on Earth that has not been claimed and occupied by people. And does anyone imagine that if, somehow, another resource-rich continent were discovered today we would collectively say, “Well, we’ve certainly messed up everywhere else. Let’s just leave this one in its pristine state”?

Consider the universal official response to the disappearing sea-ice in the Arctic. Do governments react in alarm and redouble efforts to negotiate a climate change mitigation treaty or otherwise protect the Arctic ecosystem? Certainly not! Canada and other circumpolar nations are tripping over each other in their frenzy to stake or reinforce their claims to the newly-exposed resource endowment of the ocean floor, including more of the petroleum and natural gas that are the cause of the problem in the first place (Gamble 2009).

In fact, this is the typical human response to anything we take to be resources. One recent study shows that in terms of energy use (and therefore carbon dioxide emissions), biomass consumption and various other ecologically significant indicators, human demands dwarf those of similar species by orders of magnitude. Human consumption of biomass, for example, exceeds the upper 95% confidence limits for biomass ingestion by 95 other non-human mammal species by two orders of magnitude (Fowler and Hobbs 2003). By virtue of cumulative knowledge and technology, H. sapiens has become, directly or indirectly, the dominant macro-consumer in all major terrestrial and accessible marine ecosystems on the planet.

All of which means that, our species may well be the most voraciously successful predatory and herbivorous vertebrate ever to walk the earth. In this light we can interpret unsustainability as the most recent and possibly terminal manifestation of humanity’s competitive superiority.

Humanity’s extraordinary material success actually makes us the archetype for an idea first articulated by ecologist Alfred Lotka in 1922 and now known as the ‘maximum power principle’: systems that prevail in the struggle for life (i.e., successful individuals, species and ecosystems) are those that evolve in ways that maximize their use of available energy and material resources (see Lotka 1922). H. sapiens’ adoption of agriculture ten millennia ago was the first great leap forward in our species’ capacity to harvest energy from nature and the one that made permanent settlements and large-scale civilization possible.

However, more than any other factor, our ability to exploit fossil fuels explains the explosive expansion of the human enterprise that began in the 19th Century. In effect, the modern world is made from petroleum.

There is, however, a compound problem.

First, despite today’s material abundance, people’s competitive drive and tendency to accumulate remains unsatisfied. Modern humans don’t have a built-in ‘off’ switch that is tripped by sufficiency (which, by the way, is the basis for the economists’ caricature of humans as Homo oeconomicus, as ‘a self-interested utility maximizer with fixed preferences and insatiable material demands’). Second, humanity’s technological capacity to exploit nature now exceeds nature’s reproductive capacity. The combined result of these forces haunts the sorry history of so-called resource management, particularly common pool assets: “While there is considerable variation in detail, there is remarkable consistency in
the history of resource exploitation: resources are inevitably overexploited, often to the point of
collapse or extinction” (Ludwig, Walters and Hilborn 1993, p.17).

The implosion of North Atlantic cod in1992, until then the world’s greatest fishery, is a striking Canadian example.

The cultural Re-enforcer: The myth of perpetual growth

These basic facts of human ecology alone are sufficient to explain how even primitive huntergatherers often caused permanent changes in ecosystems, including the extinctions of many large mammals and (particularly flightless) birds. Certainly, too, humanity’s expansionist tendencies, combined with such preindustrial technologies as sail-power, were sufficient to drive the European “rape of the world” that was well under way by the end of the 16th Century (Ponting 1991).

But the contemporary sustainability crisis, the global-scale degradation that threatens the future of humanity itself, is a product of the industrial era. This is the period when cultural forces, endowed with unprecedented technological leverage, emerged to reinforce humanity’s innate expansionism. In particular, industrial culture acquired a universal unifying goal—promoting economic growth has become the principal raison d’être of national governments the world over.

There is actually a second layer of nature-nurture interaction at work here. Humans are natural
story-tellers and myth-makers. No society is without its myths and legends, its grand cultural narrative. In fact, the ‘social construction of reality’ (or better, the ‘social construction of perceptions’) in the form of stories, myths, ideologies and paradigms is a universal property of human societies that plays a vital role in every culture including our own (Grant 1998).

The key point is that while the tendency to mythologize is yet another vessel cast from our genes, what
we put into it (in this case, the idea of perpetual growth) is determined by social and cultural context. If the modern mind has difficulty in accepting this notion, it is only because we prefer to believe that we are essentially a science-based culture. Most ‘educated’ people have learned to equate myth with falsehood, superstition, and the mystical beliefs of ‘primitive’ peoples.

But this is a particularly sterile and dismissive view of myth. Consider instead Colin Grant’s description of myths “not as mistaken views but as comprehensive visions that give shape and direction to life” (Grant 1998, p.1).

With this perspective in mind, I submit that the entire world today is united in a grand mythic vision of global development and poverty alleviation centred on unlimited economic expansion fuelled by open markets and more liberalized trade (Rees 2002). This myth springs from the assumption that human well-being derives from perpetual income growth. No other cultural narrative in all of history has given greater “shape and direction to [the lives]” of so many people.

The perpetual growth ethic, still spreading into the developing world, has actually taken hold in a
remarkably short period of time. Only eight or ten generations of people have experienced sufficient economic growth or related technological change to notice it in their lifetimes—99.5% of human history has been no-growth history. As an influential memetic construct, perpetual economic growth has actually been around for only two generations. Indeed, there was virtually no interest in economic growth as a policy objective anywhere before 1950. Yet, by the end of the ’50s, economic growth had bubbled to the top as the “supreme overriding objective of policy” in many countries.

By then, “…more rapid economic growth came to be regarded as a prophylactic or remedy for all the major current ailments of western economies” (Arndt 1978, cited in Victor 2008, p.13).  Here the point to remember is that like maladaptive genes, illconsidered memes—no matter how successful in the short term—may ultimately be selected out by a changing ‘environment.’

Indeed, the problem for sustainability is that the perpetual growth myth knows no ecological bounds. Mainstream academic models of the economy make no functional reference whatever to the ecosystems that contain it. Co-lateral damage to ‘the environment’ is considered to be a mere ‘negative externality’ that can be corrected by appropriate pricing through, for example, pollution charges or taxes. Resource shortages? No matter—we can relieve local shortages through trade, and should the problem be more widespread, we play the technology card—the expansionist myth asserts that human ingenuity will find a substitute for any depleting resource.

The late business professor Julian Simon put the techno-mantra this way:

“Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature…  We have in our hands now – actually in our libraries – the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years… (Simon 1995).
This is such an arithmetically-challenged statement, that only the terminally gullible would take
it seriously, but it makes the point to which Simon dedicated his business and academic life—there is no basis whatsoever for concern about resource scarcity or ecological degradation.

Indeed, growth advocates regard environmentalists and other critics as imposing a dangerous drag on the world’s growth-based pursuit of progress.

It goes almost without saying that industrial capitalism both feeds and feeds on perpetual growth—material accumulation is both the objective of and a necessary fuel for the capitalist production and consumption. But because of its insatiable thirst for cheap resources and labour, capital has become tightly tied to the political and military power needed to sustain its global expansion (just as US President Eisenhower warned it would).

The history of conflict since WWII (particularly the recently-ended Bush administration’s record) shows how this particular alignment of powers responds to any effort to resist it.

Finally, we must note the average citizen’s generally unconscious role in all this. Capitalism needs people to buy its prodigious output. In the 1950s, private capital therefore began to rethink what has become today’s multi-hundred billion dollar advertising industry to flog the products of its factories. At that point, the social construction of reality had become a commercial enterprise with the goal of converting potentially self-aware citizens into autonomic consumers. (By the way, this is achieved by playing on people’s innate insecurities, competitive instincts, envy, concerns about social status, etc., i.e., a bevy of emotions and instincts resident in the mid-brain and R-complex.)

Our throw-away consumer society was literally invented by private capital mainly to serve the interests of private capital. Listen to how 1950s marketing expert Victor Lebow described the mission:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate (Lebow 1955).

Little wonder that theologian Colin Grant describes the consumer sub-myth as going beyond materialism: “…it is about spiritual reality. It represents the most sustained attempt in the history of humanity to accord total spiritual significance to material consumption” (Grant 1998). All of which underscores an essential factor impeding progress toward sustainability: The current generation of people has been thoroughly, if unconsciously, socially-engineered as reflexive mega-consumers with no consideration of the long-term effects on personal health or the earth.

Parsing the Growth-Based Development Myth I have argued that that the modern world is in the thrall of a global development myth based on continuous economic growth. This myth essentially equates human well-being with ever-rising income (i.e., capacity to consume). It posits that we need ever greater money-wealth to provide the means better to protect ‘the environment.’

The myth promotes global economic integration as a means to increase gross economic output by taking advantage of the efficiencies associated with specialization and trade. Most importantly, in the present context, growth advocates argue that economic expansion is essential to relieve the debilitating poverty that is still the dominant reality for at least a third of the human family.

It seems appropriate to assess how we are doing in light of these assumptions and in pursuit of these goals: What does the empirical record of the past half century tell us not only about the merits of the myth itself but also about the human nature of (un)sustainability?

• First, we know that growth-driven ‘development’ is degrading the biophysical basis of our own existence—and the problem is not just climate change. Humans are acidifying the oceans; deserts are spreading; tropical forests are disappearing; biodiversity is declining; fisheries are collapsing; soils are eroding; aquifers are falling; surface waters are polluted beyond life and use, etc. The climate system and major ecosystems are approaching tipping points beyond which they may well “flip” into new equilibrium states that might not be compatible with human economic or ecological needs. Such
changes may be irreversible in practical terms on time scales that matter to people. Again, the collapse of Canada’s Northern Cod stocks serves as an archetype of systems collapse. Obviously, such trends can only detract from long-term human well-being.

• We know that the world’s most serious ecological problems (e.g., climate change) can be traced mainly to high-income consumers. The wealthy have the per capita ecological footprints twenty or more times larger than the very poor. The richest 20% of the population consume most of the world’s economic and ecological output (see below). Clearly, greater income is no assurance of greater environmental protection.

• We know that while economic growth has raised millions out of poverty the absolute number of poor has never been greater. Particularly in the impoverished parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, about 1.2 billion people still lack access to potable water and 2.6 billion have no sanitary or sewage facilities. Almost a billion people live on less than a dollar per day and most are calorically deprived. About 2.6  human population live in poverty at less than two dollars a day and most are otherwise malnourished. Over 26,000 children die every day from poverty (meaning hunger, waterborne and other preventable illnesses) (Shah 2008, World Bank 2008).

These billions of people, ostensibly the intended beneficiaries of global growth, would benefit greatly from even modest income increases but are gaining little ground.

By contrast:

• We know that the greatest share of national and global income growth flows to upper income groups who need it least. In 1966 the world’s wealthiest countries with one billion people—15% of the world population—accounted for 76% of gross world product ($36.6 trillion out of $48.2 trillion). The richest 20% of the world’s population take home 76.6% of the world’s income; the poorest 20% subsist on 1.5% (Shah 2008, UNDP 2007).

• We know that further income growth for the rich is borderline futile and certainly anegregious waste of the world’s resources. Beyond a certain point, a point long past in the development of high-income countries, there is no significant positive relationship between various objective indicators of population health (longevity, infant mortality, post-operative survival, etc.) and rising incomes (Siegel 2006, Victor 2008). The same is true for subjective indicators, measures of ‘felt’ well being (e.g., for the United States, Robert Lane describes “…the strange, seemingly contradictory pattern … of rising real income and a falling index of subjective well-being” (Lane 2000).

• Nevertheless, we know that the income gap both between and within countries is widening. In 1960, the 20% of the world’s people living in the richest countries took home 30 times the income of the poorest 20%; by 1997, this had increased to 74 times as much. The average American who was 38 times richer than the average Tanzanian in 1990 was 61 times richer in 2005. (By 2005, the average African household was consuming 20 percent less than it did 25 years ago [UNDP 2005]). As noted, the already wealthy increasingly appropriate the greatest share of national income growth. As a result, by 2000, the richest five percent of the United States’ population owned 60% of that nation’s wealth. That is, the top five percent had more wealth than the remaining 95% of the population combined. (The US now has the widest income gap of any high income nation.)

• We also know—ironically—that one of the most significant contributors to declining population health and increasing civil unrest in poor and rich countries alike is income disparity. Countries with increasing inequality and deepening social divisions “…tend to show markedly higher rates of alcohol related deaths, accidents, homicide, crime, violence and probably drug use” (Wilkinson 1996).

Yet we actively promote national and global political economies that systematically and dramatically increase inequity. More than 80% for the human population lives in countries where income differentials are increasing, including Canada and the US (UNDP 2007).

It seems that over the past few decades virtually the entire world has bought into an economic growth paradigm that, contrary to its implicit assumptions and stated goals, is wrecking the ecosphere, undermining essential life-support systems, failing the chronically poor, making the already rich richer without improving well-being, and increasing inequality virtually everywhere with negative implications for population health and social stability. This is not exactly a stellar record. As ecological economist Herman Daly has frequently argued, we may be well into a period of uneconomic growth in which the (mostly unaccounted) costs outweigh the benefits. Yet the universal response to these failings—and, most recently, to the collapse of the global financial system—is to add fuel to the (now  omewhat dampened) fire. Rather than seize the opportunity to create a potentially sustainable new economy, governments everywhere are attempting to resurrect the old—bailing out corrupt financiers and failed banks, salvaging a grossly mismanaged auto industry, lowering interest rates, assembling ‘stimulus packages’ and doing everything else they can to reignite the flames of national and global growth.

And we have certainly not forgotten that programmed automaton, the lowly consumer. Governments are lowering income taxes to renew people’s enthusiasm for performing their assigned role in the capitalist economy (and the blind-sided ‘beneficiaries’ mostly cheer, apparently oblivious to the fact that this means reducing government services that they may actually need). The media are certainly firmly with the program. A recent Globe and Mail editorial chided Canadians for their thrift and parsimony, even in these uncertain times. Saving apparently stifles growth. For our own good, the Globe urged, “spend wisely, but spend nonetheless” (G&M 2009).

Now, an alien observer might be puzzled by all this. Can we really claim to be a science-based society?  Certainly repetitive futile actions are not the mark of high intelligence and reason. Wasn’t it Einstein  who quipped, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results?”

But this precisely is the point—intelligence and reason are not the primary determinants of human social behaviour. It is raw instinct and emotion, combined with familiar constructed beliefs, not logical analysis and reason, that “give shape and direction to life.” We prefer our myths and ignore the data; shared illusion provides a psychological shield against the harsh barbs  of reality. Popular social critic and environmentalist Derrick Jenson nailed the point nicely when he wrote that:

“For us to maintain our way of living, we must… tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves… [the lies] are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities” (D. Jensen 2000).

Intelligence, Self-delusion and Sustainability

Modern humans may not be insane but we can make the case that they are genuinely confused. I argued earlier H. sapiens is a conflicted species “torn on the one hand between what reason or moral judgement says we should do and what pure emotion or baser instincts command us to do.” I want now to return to that argument.

In 1955, at the time economic growth was pushing its way to prominence on the policy agenda,
German philosopher Martin Heidegger lamented that “…man today is in flight from thinking”
(Heidegger, 2003, p.88). Heidegger was not referring to the short-term, goal-driven calculative
thinking of the kind that, for example, drives the economy, advances technology and proliferates
electronic gadgetry. He meant that people have abandoned meditative thinking, that uniquely human form of intellectual activity that contemplates “…the meaning which reigns in everything that is” (Heidegger, 2003, p.89). Meditative thinking requires concentrated effort, wilfull  determination, and active consciousness in deep exploration of present reality. This is the kind of thinking that is missing from the roiling boil of modern life.

Heidegger is arguing that we moderns have allowed to “lie fallow” one of our greatest and uniquely human abilities. Instead we are being swept along in the techno-material tide, guided, if at all by careless whims and sheep-like adherence to prevailing mythology.

Our Renaissance philosopher friend, Mirandola, actually anticipated Heidegger’s concern by 500
years (unconscious human behaviour is fairly constant). Indeed, we may well be living
Mirandola’s worst nightmare. You will recall that  Mirandola intuitively sensed the evolutionary
role of the cerebral cortex—to him the capacity for contemplative thinking was a gift of God that
raised ‘man’ above the beasts. But Mirandola feared that even his contemporaries disparaged
philosophy, seeing the pursuit of answers about “the causes of things, the ways of nature and the
plan of the universe” as “occasion for contempt…, rather than honour and glory.” He was pained
to recognize that society had “reached the point… where the only persons accounted wise are
those who can reduce the pursuit of wisdom to a profitable traffic.”

In Mirandola’s view, “…if you see a man [thus] bedazzled by the empty forms of the imagination… and through their alluring solicitations made a slave to his own senses [read: ‘emotions and instincts’], you see a brute and not a man” (Mirandola 1486).

Exactly so.  By allowing our capacity for self-conscious intelligence to “lie fallow” we also allow relatively brutish behavioural predispositions that originate beneath consciousness in the limbic system and brainstem to dominate our actions.  Short-term self-interest, material greed, possessive accumulation, competitive exclusion—these have been the primary and proudly public drivers of industrial capitalism’s expansion around the world in recent decades.

By contrast, acting with high intelligence, consistent with the scientific evidence on global change, and exercising our capacity for moral judgment, would require that rich countries recognize that it is now in their own long-term interest not only give up the idea of continuous material growth but begin a planned shrinkage of their national economies. This is necessary on a finite planet already in overshoot to make room for needed growth in the developing world (Rees 2008, Victor 2008).

Climate science says that to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change, global society must reduce its CO2 emissions by 80-90% by mid-century, beginning almost immediately (and even this may prove too little too late). Similarly, our eco-footprint work shows that for sustainability with equity, North Americans would have to reduce their ecological footprints by about 80%, from around nine global average hectares per capita to our ‘fair Earth-share’ of about two gha (Rees 2006, WWF 2008).

These may seem to be impossible goals, but analysis shows that we actually have the technology
today to enable a 75% reduction in energy and (some) material consumption (e.g., Weizsäcker et
al. 1997) while improving quality of life in the first world and increasing general well-being in
the developing countries. Remember, too, that, on average, people in wealthy countries were actually happier with half and less of today’s average per capita income.

Yet we do not act, even to save ourselves. ‘Contraction’ is not the narrative people are used to hearing; it is not a story we want to heed. Privileged elites with the greatest personal stake in the status quo control the policy levers and are steering us onto the rocks. Ordinary people hold to the expansionist myth as to a life-raft, in deep denial of present reality. It seems we are all willing to trade off uncertain but potentially major long-term gain (i.e., cultural survival) to avoid the certain but minor short-term pain of having to adjust our lifestyles.

Despite the growing scale of potential catastrophe, the innate human tendency to discount the future remains intact. And, of course, the world dismisses those analysts who have actually thought things through. Nineteenth Century behavioural psychologist Gustave Le Bon described the syndrome well in his book on the workings of “the popular mind”:

“The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste,
preferring to deify error, if error seduce[s] them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their
master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” (Gustave le Bon 1896).
Le Bon’s observation is no mere curiosity. Cognitive blocks and resultant behavioural inertia can
determine the fates of nations. The distinguished American historian, Barbara Tuchman, details the tragic effects of self-delusion on entire societies through millennia in her 1984 classic, The March of Folly. According to Tuchman political folly or “wooden-headedness”: “...plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions [i.e., ideology] while ignoring any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts” (Tuchman 1984, p.7).15

For those who still doubt the power of entrenched beliefs over thoughtful deliberation, recent cognitive research has revealed a physiological mechanism. During early development and maturation, social, cultural and sensory experiences actually shape the individual’s brain structures and synaptic circuitry in an ‘image’ of those experiences.  Once entrenched, these neural structures alter the individual’s subsequent experience and perception. People tend to seek out experiences that reinforce their pre-set neural circuitry and to select information from their environment that matches these structures.

Conversely, “when faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information” (Wexler 2006, p. 180).

This problem may be particularly acute among political leaders because yet another mechanism is at play. When people perceive a threat to their status, safety or survival, innate behavioural propensities that operate beneath consciousness in the limbic system and brain-stem tend to override more rational defensive responses. Thus, in addition to being psychologically hardwired to their political ideologies, politicians may be more than usually enslaved to brainstembased survival instincts, particularly the deep-seated need to retain their wealth, prestige and political power. So it is that in the history of human affairs, brutish passion and instinct often overwhelm the godly gift of reason (Morrison 1999).

There is a still further complicating factor in the context of sustainability. Globalization, that
hand-maiden to expansionist logic, has lead to such an entanglement of interests and nations, that
individual people and countries who do understand the ecological crisis cannot act to save themselves even if inclined to do so. In a thoroughly interconnected world (un)sustainability is a collective crisis that demands collective solutions. Nations that act alone to rationalize their economies would have to abrogate various international treaties and agreements (on trade, for example) and would be regarded as rogues or renegades. Unless most others followed, they would put themselves at great contemporary disadvantage with no long-term benefit—they would inevitably go down with the global ship.

Machiavelli, the more cynical contemporary of Mirandola, understood this well, when he observed that:
 “…the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation” (Machiavelli 2003, p.7).

Conclusions: Coming to Grips with Reality

I want to be sure that we understand the full import of what I am proposing here. Our current
unsustainable state is actually the product of H.sapiens’ inordinate evolutionary success in the struggle for existence. However, the same genetic traits that assured the survival and competitive supremacy of primitive peoples—e.g., an emphasis on short-term individual self-interest, future discounting, loyalty to tribal myths, etc.— have become maladaptive for modern humans in the much changed circumstances created by humanity’s success itself. To make matters worse, our now disadvantageous innate  behavioural traits are being reinforced by cultural memes—e.g., the perpetual growth myth—that were maladaptive from the start. The problem is that both bad genes and inappropriate memes may be selected out by an ecosphere in convulsion.

Modern human society is unsustainable by nature.

This thesis is not entirely speculative. Various previous cultures great and small have initially flourished, only later to succumb to problems exacerbated by their behavioural demons.  According to anthropologist Joseph Tainter “...what is perhaps most intriguing in the evolution of human societies is the regularity with which the pattern of increasing complexity is interrupted by collapse…” (Tainter 1995).

The inability to cope with climate change and ecological degradation in particular are implicated in the ruin of various cultures throughout history (Diamond 2005). Once again, assuming our contemporary science is correct, the human enterprise is on a collision course with biophysical reality, only this time on a global scale.

The world may already be at a point where there are insufficient resources and sinks to support a population of eight or nine billion people at an acceptable material standard.

It is therefore by no means a stretch to contemplate the decline if not rapid collapse of global society (e.g., Greer 2008).

As this possibility becomes clearer to panicking governments everywhere, prospects for a negotiated collective solution will likely fade in inverse proportion. The tension between reason and fear would dissolve like sugar in hot rum. Base survival instincts—looking out for number one, now!—would prevail among still-powerful nations clinging to desperate dreams of maintaining the status quo, at least for themselves. Thus, we may well face a future of wars fought not so much over conflicting beliefs as over access to the world’s dwindling supplies of vital energy, mineral and agricultural resources. The shape of US foreign policy in recent years provides a foreshadowing template. (There is no shortage of books and reports exploring this scenario—e.g., Klare [2001], Woodbridge [2004], CSIS [2007]).

Of course, if any one nation plays its nuclear card, the entire human species would be at risk.

Can we fix the future?

The sustainability conundrum obviously poses the ultimate challenge to collective intelligence, complex reasoning and the capacity for moral judgement, vital qualities we humans claim as uniquely our own. The copious historical evidence that, in times of crisis, these cerebral properties generally yield to evolutionarily older and better-tested emotional (limbic) and instinctive (R-complex) intelligence is therefore somewhat disheartening. The integrated human brain obviously does not yet trust higher order intelligence to be in charge when the pressure is on. The question is whether the world community can muster the sheer cooperative will needed to reverse the intellectual dominance order in today’s extraordinary times.

Success in this effort may be necessary for the survival of civilization for one simple reason. For the first time in the evolutionary history of H. sapiens, short-term individual and ‘tribal’ self interest has all but converged with humanity’s long-term collective interest. Ecological and social selection pressures have shifted. In today’s nuclear-tipped world, “every ‘man’ for himself!” might well mean destruction for all; working cooperatively for all may be necessary to save oneself. This means that the selective advantage has shifted to genes that reinforce cooperative, even (mutually) altruistic behaviour.

The question is whether we can create the necessary complementary memetic mutations. Social reinforcement of newly-adaptive mutualistic behaviours is necessary for collective survival in a resource-stressed world.

It is said that in every crisis is opportunity. To date, responses to global financial and economic meltdown have focused on reproducing the economic pyramid scheme(s) that precipitated the problem in the first place. Instead, the available data, intelligently interpreted, suggest that the world community should seize the moment to begin the creation of a global steady-state economy. The guiding principles should be sufficiency for all and a focus on true development (getting qualitatively better) rather than mere growth (getting quantitatively bigger).

In other words, the global crisis offers us the privileged mission—should we choose to accept it—of setting out intentionally to script a new, ecologically adaptive, socially enriching global cultural narrative. This new master blueprint must better reflect ecological reality on a crowded planet than does our failing growth-based paradigm. Competition, greed, and fetishistic individualism must be balanced or replaced by cooperation, sharing and community values; short-term material wants must give way to long-term survival needs.

The key is to recognize that all these terms can found in the dictionary of human behaviour, but the vocabulary we choose to give voice to our new ‘narrative for survival’ is a matter of social choice.

Of course, any attempt to engineer a social transition must confront the fact that humans are naturally behaviourally conservative. We are indeed creatures of habit. Once an individual’s synaptic pathways and associated behaviours are well-entrenched, it is difficult for that person to adapt to significant changes in either the socio-cultural or biophysical environments. To reestablish cognitive consonance between programmed perceptions and new environmental realities requires that the affected parties engage wilfully in the restructuring of their own neural pathways and psychological states. Even when people accept that such ‘reprogramming’ is necessary, the process it can be lengthy, difficult and unpredictable (Wexler 2006).

The good news comes from research showing that the human brain is remarkably plastic (e.g., Schwartz
and Begley 2002). Assuming the availability of adequate resources and political will, it is therefore theoretically possible to inscribe a new narrative even on the resistant psyches of the present generation. Sustainability may yet be within our grasp. Humanity, that wondrous ‘work in progress,’ may yet have an opportunity to pull itself up another rung on the evolutionary ladder.


In essence, the sustainability challenge for the present generation is to come fully to consciousness and to elevate humanity’s capacities for collective intelligence, inclusive reasoning and moral judgement to positions of greater prominence in global politics as it pertains to issues of ecological change. This is theoretically possible but will be extremely difficult.

Many would argue that the inordinate diversity of the human family and its distressing array of conflicting values and interests, combined with the power of maladaptive instincts and contrary narratives, render any such plan for global self-rescue little more than a utopian dream. Indeed, given the record to date, its probability of success is less than that for the survival of an overcrowded Newfie dory adrift without power in the wintery North Atlantic.

Other analysts recognize this conundrum. Sweden’s 2007 Tällberg Forum focused on the question “How on Earth can we live together?” Discussions closed with two other questions together with answers: “Do we know what to do? Probably yes. Will we do it? Probably not.”

Participants apparently saw this as a “realistic view of our common situation with regard to climate, sustainability and the necessary transition we must all achieve” (Tällberg Forum 2008).

Discouraging? Yes—but it is up to every one of us, acting together, to prove the 2007 Tällberg Forum wrong. If we do not succeed in realizing our collective dream, modern humans will, indeed, wind up visiting vast misery on themselves and irretrievably mutilating their planetary home (see UCS 1992). As I have written elsewhere, “It would be a tragic irony if, in the 21st Century, this most technologically sophisticated of human societies finally succumbs to the unconscious urgings of fatally self-interested primitive tribalism. The cycle of societal collapse will have closed once again, this time on the global scale” (Rees 2002).

[For references, click on the link at the top.]

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Tree

The goal, stated in the last sentence, for this research from Croatia - conducted from 1991 to 1995 - makes the charmingly naive assumption that the problem it investigates can be ameliorated.  I have left the translation errors intact:

The Forest dieback in Croatia, the Research on the Causes and Afforestation Procedures

"Forest dieback is a global issue concerning the forests immediately impacted by techical civilization. The research is based on the knowledge, that the forest dieback is the result of industrial, urban, traffic and agricultural pollution, partly though, ty the technologies badly adapted to forest ecosystems. The micro-habitat methods helped to assess great changes in the forest soils, dry and moist sulphate deposits, nitrates and other poisons being present in Croatian forests for a considerable time now. Though different tree species react differently, sooner or later all will be destroyed through the alterations of the physiological processes in them. The results of this research should alleviate the disastrous consequences."

Anyone who reads Wit's End, and knows that I am always searching for a scientist who will state openly that ozone is killing trees, will understand why I consider the following link, which I found this morning, as a very special gift from Santa.  The entire thing is a fascinating read, but all you really need to know is excerpted below.

Happy Holidays to all, and thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy the song.

A Case Study in the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California


Many factors increase susceptibility of forests to wildfire. Among them are increases in human population, changes in land use, fire suppression, and frequent droughts. These and other factors have been exacerbating forest susceptibility to wildfires over the past century in southern California. We report on the significant role that air pollution has had on increasing forest susceptibility to wildfires, based on a 1999–2003 case study in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Air pollution, specifically ozone (O3) and wet and dry deposition of nitrogenous (N) compounds as a by-product of fossil fuel combustion, has significantly increased since urbanization and industrialization of the region after 1945. Ozone and elevated N deposition cause specific changes in forest tree carbon (C), N, and water balance that enhance individual tree susceptibility to drought, bark beetle attack, and disease, and when combined, contribute to whole ecosystem susceptibility to wildfire.

For example, elevated O3 and N deposition increase leaf turnover rates, leaf and branch litter, and decrease decomposability of litter, creating excessively deep litter layers in mixed-conifer forests affected by air pollutants. Elevated O3 and N deposition decrease the proportion of whole tree biomass in foliage and roots, thereby increasing tree susceptibility to drought and beetle attack. Because both foliar and root mass are compromised, carbohydrates are stored in the bole over winter. Elevated O3 increases drought stress by significantly reducing plant control of water loss. The resulting increase in canopy transpiration, combined with O3 and N deposition-induced decreases in root mass, significantly increases tree susceptibility to drought stress, likely contributing to successful host colonization and population increases of barkbeetles. Phenomenological and experimental evidence is presented to support the role of these factors contributing to an increase in the susceptibility of forests to wildfire in southern California.

Despite the level of attention given to the causative factors for increased wildfire activity (Westerling et al., 2006), a largely ignored contributing factor is air pollution. Chronic nitrogen (N) deposition
contributes to increased forest densification by stimulating aboveground biomass production and enhances litter accumulation through increased needle production, turnover rates, and depressed long-term decomposition rates (Fog, 1988). Elevated ozone (O3) exposure increases tree susceptibility to drought stress through direct effects on loss of stomatal control with subsequent increased canopy transpiration, and increased successful bark beetle colonization through both increased tree drought
stress and pollutant-induced redistribution of carbohydrates to the bole. The effects of these air pollutants, combined with the human and ecological changes in the fire-adapted ecosystem, have increased forest stand susceptibility to wildfire in southern California (Fig. 17.1).

Friday, December 23, 2011

Gilding Christmas

Paul Gilding is one of any number of authors I admire, who write brilliant prose about the several impending and converging catastrophes - what he has famously labeled, The Great Disruption.  Invariably however, his last chapters like so many others conclude with a sugar-coated happy pill, a prediction where we humans manage to snatch some civility from the chaos and mass extinction of peak oil and climate change to miraculously discover new, more sustainable derivatives of contentment, learning by necessity to live on less.  And so isn't his name, Gilding, delightfully eponymous?  Perhaps that's why Zawacki is a verb.  Or not.
For me preparing for the celebrations this holiday season - the shopping, cooking, and decorating - feels more like navigating a very small and vulnerable boat through the worst tempest, trying frantically to avoid being smashed onto an unyielding rocky shore.   I cannot see the redemption in human "nature",  because by all objective evaluations, we are outside nature - or else our natural condition is moral turpitude.  Thus I envisage instead of a disruption, a Great Convulsion - something far more violent...and looming just over the horizon.

Yesterday I photographed daffodils - and their emergence before Christmas fills me with the darkest foreboding.  Something is seriously awry when it is still 50 degrees F at night in December.
Planes continue to fly, and the parking lot in the mall is crowded, but I cannot escape the knowledge that this cannot continue much longer.  How fitting is it then, for this blog that began in order to warn that trees are dying from pollution, that Anonymous left in a comment a link to this story:  Frankincense trees, too, are dying and that "the forests are running out of trees".  That sounds rather ominous, doesn't it?

Deep gratitude to RPauli for the tree photograph.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who Bombed Judi Bari?

Judi Bari was a remarkable woman, a labor organizer and principal organizer of the Earth First! environmentalists.  It's incredible to me that I had never heard of Judi Bari's existence before today, and now she is one of my heros.
The subject of a new documentary film about her life as an activist, she tried to save redwoods from the logging industry, but following weeks of death threats was bombed in her car with another member of EF on May 24, 1990.  Then, prosecutors tried to blame them for staging the incident.  She died of cancer in 1997, five years before their suit against the FBI and Oakland Police was won and awarded $4.4 million, for violations of their right to free speech.
Occupiers should take note of this very calculated law enforcement malfeasance, of which the wiki says:  "Simply, instead of looking for the actual terrorists, they persecuted the victims of that terror because of their political activism."  There is more about this amazing story at the website for the film, which has just been completed.  You can make a small donation because the producers still need funding to promote and distribute the film - I did!  Particularly in these times of increasing civil protest, people need to know the lengths that our government will go to, to silence dissent.  That page is here.

Here's a recent upload of the original recruitment call to the Redwood Summer, which has some pointed criticism of corporate profiteering that should resonate quite well today!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Root of the Matter

I was planning to avoid mention of the staggering destruction to trees from the Santa Ana winds in Southern California...never mind suggest it could be even partially due to damage from air pollution - because in fact, they did have extraordinarily vicious, no doubt climate-change aggravated gusts.

But then, some news reports that made it obvious that the extent of the damage, even considering the ferocious wind speed, was perplexing the locals - who were themselves wondering why so many trees blew over.  And then, they were making up ridiculous excuses.  So although this post will range over a variety of sources, the pictures will be from that arboreal mass execution.
My personal favorites are the one where trees are crushing cars, which seems only fair, considering.  So let's first look at what Californians had to say in the LA Times, and then we'll dig into the latest research on ozone, which, as we all know, derives from emissions of reactive nitrogen.

"Why did the powerful Santa Ana winds that hit Southern California this week fell so many trees?"
"Experts said one reason was that the winds were remarkably choppy and unpredictable."
"In some places, winds suddenly shifted from 10 mph or 20 mph to more than 80 mph. The shift made trees as well as roofs and power lines vulnerable.
"Everything lined up perfectly," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada-Flintridge."
"Trees were no match for the winds, especially those with heavy canopies [note the many that came down that DIDN'T have any canopies at all!].  Patzert noted that trees in urban Southern California neighborhoods don't have the strong root systems found in more natural environments."
"'L.A. trees don't have deep roots. The urban forest is artificial and is primarily watered by lawn sprinklers,' Patzert said. 'So what keeps our urban forest alive is people watering their lawns, which are not natural, so you don't have deep root systems. So our trees are very vulnerable to Santa Ana events.'"
"Walter Warriner, a Santa Monica arborist and community forester, agreed, adding that the large canopies of many local trees lack strong foundations."
"'When you look at a tree above ground there's a ratio of 20 to 1 compared to below ground, so there's not that many roots holding our big trees in place,' he said."
But...but... in this story, it was reported that hundreds of trees in parks fell down, too!  So clearly, that is not explained by shallow root systems under concrete.  Here's a picture of all the pavement in Griffith Park:

High winds blew down 400 trees in Griffith Park

"Los Angeles city crews on Friday were working to clean up debris and some 400 downed trees in shuttered Griffith Park, many of which had fallen on Roosevelt Municipal Golf Course. They said the park would likely be open by sunrise Saturday."
"Officials said two other parks in Northeast L.A. -- Ernest E. Debs and Elysian Park -- also had damage including hundreds of downed trees but were not closed. Other parks across the city were mostly spared, they said."
In comments, indignant people were complaining that the trees were being cleaned up on the golf course but not on their streets.  One person wrote sarcastically:

"Trees fall practically daily in Elysian Park...why don't they put up some yellow caution tape and leave them for a few months like they do in EP?"

So, it sounds like trees falling over are a regular occurrence, having nothing to do with extraordinary winds.  Hmmmm...In this article, it's reported that 80-year old trees were knocked down:
"High winds toppled trees on Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, where for more than 80 years the deodars on Santa Rosa Avenue have been strung with 10,000 lights over the holiday season.
The trees had been strung with lights Sunday in preparation for the big lighting ceremony Dec. 10, said Maureen Ward, president of the Christmas Tree Lane Assn."
"Photo: Maureen Ward, president of the Christmas Tree Lane Assn. in Altadena, examines a deodar felled by Wednesday night's Santa Ana winds. The tree, damaged by a root fungus, had been slated for removal after this year's festivities."

A root fungus!  Fancy that.  This would appear to be a perfect segue into the recent article about Sudden Aspen Death, SAD.  After years of mystery, when dying aspens couldn't be blamed on the bark beetle that attacks pines out west, the scientists have discovered that they are dying due to *a drought!*, which they determined by examining their shriveled, wizened roots.  I guess they never heard that plants exposed to ozone have reduced allocation of carbohydrates to their root systems, even before they display visible damage?  Considering that ALL trees now display visible damage, I would say their roots are probably in pretty bad shape and have been for some time now.  This study joins an earlier report, also blaming tree death on drought, which also ignores the fact that trees exposed to ozone are more vulnerable to drought - but for this post, we're going to concentrate on roots.
I have read in numerous places that root systems become depleted from ozone damage, so I looked around on Wit's End and found an excerpt from the NE-1030, a USDA/Forest Service investigation into the effects of ozone on vegetation:

"In addition to its effect on shoots, O3 is known to adversely affect carbon flow to the root and consequently its biology and biomass (Sane et al. 1996). This has significant consequences for water transport to support gas exchange (Grantz et al. 1999)."
But hey, I gave up looking on my blog, which isn't very well organized, for citations from published scientific research and tried a fresh google search for "ozone root carbohydrate allocation reduced". That yielded a monumental 123,000 results, so it's obviously no secret!  On the very first page is this gem of a paper, "Source–sink balance and carbon allocation below ground in plants exposed to ozone" funded by our very own EPA and published in New Phytologist, which begins with a delicious, antique quote:

"The most curious result obtained appears to me to be that relating to the effect of a highly ozonized atmosphere upon the roots of plants.’ – M. Carey Lea, 1864."
"Professor M. Carey Lea was perhaps the first to study the effects of a highly oxidized atmosphere on plant growth. A member of the chemistry faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Lea used 3-l bell jars as exposure vessels in studies of wheat and corn, and generated O3 by ‘the action of sulphuric acid upon chameleon mineral’ (potassium permanganate). The exposure was regenerated every 2–3 d as ‘the presence of vegetation would tend to destroy the O3 rapidly.’ Ozone reduced ‘moulding’ and caused roots to grow upward, away from the bathing nutrient and water solution."

The summary begins:

"It is clear that O3 alters source–sink balance in plants, resulting initially in carbon retention in shoots and decreased carbon allocation below ground. Decreased carbon allocation to roots occurs relatively quickly, and in some cases root responses develop before shoot effects are observed. Decreased
allocation below ground alters carbon flux to soil, and it is probable that soil processes are altered as a result."

"There has been increased understanding of the effects of O3 on plants since 1864, particularly during the last half of the 20th century. Recognition that O3 was a problem in agricultural crops dates at least to 1944 when certain vegetables were observed to have leaf injury (Middleton et al., 1950; Richards
et al., 1958). Although originally attributed to sulfur dioxide, it was later recognized that other components of smog were causing the damage. Soon oxidant damage was recognized as a potential stress in sensitive species throughout the US and in Europe (Heggestad & Middleton, 1959; Daines  et al., 1960; Bell & Cox, 1975; Posthumus, 1976; Ro-Paulsen et al., 1981). Since that time, emphasis has often been on readily observable effects of O3, such as leaf injury, growth and yield, including factors leading to variation in response. This has led to a substantial database on the effects of O3 on plant growth and development."
"Ozone is only one of many stresses present in natural systems that can lead to shifts in ecosystem structure. An example to illustrate this point is found in southern California, where unique topographical and climatic conditions have combined with air pollutants in the Los Angeles basin to result in elevated O3 exposure to forests in the San Bernardino mountains during the last half-century (Miller et al., 1982;
Miller et al., 1989). Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and Jeffery pine (Pinus jeffreyi) were most sensitive to O3 , and therefore were weakened by chronic exposure. Weakened trees were more susceptible to bark beetle (Dendroctonus brevicomis) and root rot (Fomes annosus), and O3-tolerant species such as shrubs and oak were favored as pine mortality increased (Miller et al., 1982). It is important to note that O3 was a predisposing factor for stresses that were already present in this
ecosystem. The interaction of stresses affecting San Bernardino forests is still under investigation, particularly the role of N deposition in conjunction with O3 (Fenn et al., 1996; Takemoto et al., 2001)."

"The relative inaccessibility of plant roots has hampered efforts to understand effects of O3 below ground. Current levels of O3 are capable of altering the timing and quantity of carbon flux to soils, and therefore are affecting interactions in the rhizosphere. We still have very limited understanding of how O3 affects interactions of roots with soil organisms, and no idea how these changes alter soil physical and biological properties in ecosystems. Ozone may cause greater disruption of processes below ground than above, and these changes may occur before changes are observed above ground (Hofstra et al., 1981). Past emphasis on shoot responses, for example, photosynthesis, foliar injury, and reduced yield, has diverted our attention from a discussion of below-ground effects, which may in fact be more critical than above-ground effects in determining the long-term consequences of O3 exposure to ecosystems."

"...Biomass and ratios of biomass such as root-shoot ratio do not necessarily reveal physiological changes in response to O3 stress. Decreased carbon allocation leads to reduced carbohydrate levels and storage pools in O3-exposed plants (Tingey et al., 1976; Ito et al., 1985; Cooley & Manning, 1987; Rebbeck et al., 1988; Andersen  et al., 1991; Gorissen  et al., 1994; Andersen et al., 1997). Although difficult to quantify changes in the field, Grulke  et al. (1998) found decreased coarse, medium and fine root biomass with increased pollutant load across a gradient in southern California. Coarse and fine root starch concentrations also were lowest in mature trees at the most polluted site (Grulke et al., 2001). The effects of O3 could not be completely separated from other known stresses across the pollutant gradient, but it appeared that O3 was an important factor in the patterns observed."

"Decreased storage pools can lead to carry-over effects on root growth over time. Decreased carbohydrate storage pools were associated with decreased root growth during the spring following exposure to ozone, even in the absence of additional O3 exposure (Andersen et al., 1991, 1997). Decreased spring root growth was attributed to decreased stored reserves as well as premature loss of older foliage age classes the previous fall.  Aside from the loss of photosynthetic surface area associated with premature senescence, early loss of foliage in the fall occurs when allocation to roots is at a maximum in many species (Kozlowski & Pallardy, 1997). Older needle age classes preferentially allocate photosynthate  roots (Rangnekar et al., 1969; Gordon & Larson, 1970), and their absence in the fall during allocation to root growth and storage, and in the spring during periods of root growth, preferentially impacts roots and root processes."

[oh wasn't I just saying something about leaves falling off early in autumn??]

"There is still little understanding of the effects of O3 on root metabolism, although in the source–sink model decreased allocation will lead to down regulation of metabolic processes. As a measure of root metabolic activity, Edwards (1991) found decreased root and soil CO2 efflux during a 2-yr exposure to loblolly pine. Fine root respiration increased in mature red oak exposed to O3, while total soil CO2
efflux increased in the spring and decreased in the summer and fall (Kelting et al., 1995). The authors attributed increased root respiration to increased nutrient uptake in support of increased demands in the shoot. Ozone decreased root system respiration in aspen after 12 wk of exposure, but the decrease
was closely associated with decreased root biomass (Coleman et al., 1996). Whether or not other metabolic shifts occur in roots of plants exposed to O3 needs to be examined.  Since the site of action of O3 is in the leaf, physiological changes in the root are considered (Fig. 2)."

[did somebody mention aspen??]

"Applying the shared-control model (Farrar & Jones, 2000), O3 stress affects source control of allocation and not sink control since O3 does not penetrate the soil to affect roots directly. However, measurable effects on roots may occur before effects on shoots are observed since shoots have immediate access to carbon for repair and compensation. Mortensen (1998) found decreased root but not shoot growth in Betula pubescens at exposures of 42 nMol mol-1 (applied 12 h d−1), whereas both root and shoot growth were reduced at higher exposures. Chromosomal aberrations were found in root tips of Norway spruce exposed to O3, even in the absence of biochemical changes in needles (Wonisch, 1999). Using relatively high concentrations of O3 (0.15 ppm O36 h d−1), Hofstra et al. (1981) found metabolic changes in P. vulgaris root tips before the development of leaf injury. Morphological changes in root tips occurred within 2–3 d, and metabolism declined within 4 –5 d of initiation of exposure."

So why is it that all those scientists studying SAD didn't mention ozone?  Oh wait...there isn't any ozone!  This reminds me of a comment I found at Scientific American and reposted ages ago, by someone named DownRiverDiva, who so expressed my sentiments as divinely as only a Diva could, when she wrote:

"Why is it that there is all this reporting of things happening to the Earth and problems that are potentially devastating to the people and the environment by scientists but when they are asked why or what is going on they don't know? How are they reporting these things but don't understand them? Are the scientist just stupid and pretending to be working? Or are they in over their heads and need to be out painting billboards instead of in a science
 lab? Or don't they read their own studies? An example: "It's clear that humans are adding nitrogen to Earth's surface. Researchers do not know yet where it all goes, 'but we do know that increasing concentrations of nitrogen in unexpected places will cause significant environmental damage that we will all learn to regret,' Schlesinger wrote in a 2009 report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."  But then who can question scientists who have all kinds of degrees? Of course when this happens in medical science, they always say, "we don't know what the appendix does, but it's ok to remove it. It must not do anything if we can't figure out what purpose it serves."  Never fails. They do it all the time, for decades, till somebody says, "Hey, it does do something and we better leave it alone!" Bunch of educated fools, all of them. And don't question me, I have a couple of degrees too!"

How Hawt is THAT ??
Along these lines, I wanted to revisit the nitrogen cascade, because some new information has lately been published.  First though, let's recall that Dr. Alan Townsend, who is quoted in the following article, never answered my letter to him, probably because he is quite certain we are going to find some chemical fix for the problem, even as he describes it in very alarming terms:

"'It's been said that nitrogen pollution is the biggest environmental disaster that nobody has heard of,' Alan Townsend, Ph.D., observed at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), being held here this week. Townsend, an authority on how human activity has changed the natural cycling of nitrogen to create a friend-turned-foe dilemma, called for greater public awareness of nitrogen pollution and concerted global action to control it. He spoke at a symposium on the topic, which included almost a dozen reports (abstracts of each presentation appear below) by other experts."
"'Awareness has grown, but nitrogen pollution remains such a little-recognized environmental problem because it lacks the visibility of other kinds of pollution,' Townsend explained. 'People can see an oil slick on the ocean, but hundreds of tons of nitrogen spill invisibly into the soil, water and air every day from farms, smokestacks and automobile tailpipes. But the impact is there - unhealthy air, unsafe drinking water, dead zones in the ocean, degraded ecosystems and implications for climate change. But people don't see the nitrogen spilling out, so it is difficult to connect the problems to their source.'"
"Townsend described the scope and the intensification of the nitrogen pollution problem as 'startling'.  He noted that nitrogen inputs to the terrestrial environment have doubled worldwide during the past century. This increase is due largely to the invention and widespread use of synthetic fertilizer, which has revolutionized agriculture and boosted the food supply."

"The concern focuses on so-called 'reactive' nitrogen. Air contains about 78 percent nitrogen. But this nitrogen is unreactive or 'inert', and plants can't use the gas as a nutrient. In 1909, chemist Fritz Haber developed a way to transform this unreactive gas into ammonia, the active ingredient of synthetic fertilizer. By 2005, human activity was producing about 400 billion pounds of reactive nitrogen each year."
"'A single atom of reactive nitrogen can contribute to air pollution, climate change, ecosystem degradation and several human health concerns,' Townsend said. He is an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Damage to the ecosystem - a biological community interacting with its nonliving environment - includes water pollution and reduced biological diversity, including the loss of certain plant species."
"Though the full extent is currently unknown, nitrogen pollution can impact human health. Reactive nitrogen is a key contributor to air pollution, including the formation of ground-level ozone, which is a well-known health risk. Recent estimates suggest that nitrogen-related air pollution costs the U.S. well over $10 billion per year in both health costs and reduced crop growth. And though less well studied, high nitrogen levels in water can cause a variety of health concerns, ranging from the effects of drinking water nitrate to the potential to alter the risks of several human diseases."
"Increased nitrogen levels also have implications for climate change, Townsend noted. Excess nitrogen can affect the rate of climate change in multiple and opposing ways. One the one hand, it leads to more warming via the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, but on the other hand, it can reduce warming by fueling extra plant growth and by forming substances called reflective aerosols in the atmosphere, the scientists noted."
"'The net effect of these processes remains uncertain, but appears to result in minor cooling presently,' Townsend said. However, he noted that excess nitrogen also has large and clear consequences for some worrisome impacts of a changing climate, notably air and water pollution."
"'Climate change is expected to worsen each of these problems worldwide, but reduction of nitrogen pollution could go a long way toward lessening such climate-driven risks,' he added."
"'We're just now starting to recognize the scope of the problem,' said Townsend. 'But the good news is that there are many opportunities for us to lessen the problems. These include ways in which chemists can help, ranging from the development of new technologies to reduce nitrogen's impact to new measurement technologies and techniques that can better diagnose the problems we face with nitrogen.'"
"He outlined several possible solutions to the problem. They include continued and greater support for technologies that remove or reduce reactive nitrogen formation during fossil fuel burning and incentives that can encourage farmers to be more efficient with their fertilizer use. The latter could include subsidies that reward the application of environmental practices that reduce nitrogen levels,' he said.
Several other solutions exist for improving the efficiency of agricultural nitrogen use, Townsend added. 'In many ways, we already know how to do it - the problems are largely about finding the political and cultural means to implement these new practices,' he said.'"
Dr. Townsend is a member of a five-year project to study nitrogen that began last March, funded by the National Science Foundation, but since he seems to think wonderful living through new chemistry is in our future, I don't have much hope for realistic information emerging from it:
"The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a 5-year project, beginning March 2011, to create a network of researchers who specialize in a wide range of disciplines pertaining to excess nitrogen in the environment, including aquatic and terrestrial ecology, agronomy, atmospheric chemistry, groundwater dynamics, engineering, epidemiology, and economics. We propose to partner with Resource Media, which has created Nitrogen News as part of a project supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Nitrogen News was created as a resource for journalists and bloggers covering nitrogen science and management policy."
"Demand for nitrogen fertilizers is increasing in response to growing human population, improving diets, and expanding biofuel crop production. Unfortunately, only about half of the applied nitrogen is used by crops, and the rest is unintentionally released to groundwater, rivers, and to the air, where it presents problems for human health and ecosystem health. Burning fossil fuels for industry and transportation also releases nitrogen into the air, which falls on soils and water bodies. The objective of this research coordination network is to engage a community of researchers from many disciplines, including atmospheric chemistry, agronomy, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, social science, and human and wildlife health, who individually study aspects of this issue, but whose collective, inter-disciplinary synthesis is needed to define integrative potential solutions."
"A series of workshops will be convened on topics such as impacts of excess nitrogen on climate, air pollution, water pollution, and agricultural production. Framing the scientific issues of excess nitrogen in the environment in a context relevant to human and ecosystem health will increase understanding for both scientific and non-scientific audiences of the extent of the health and pollution problems associated with excess nitrogen, as well as options and trade-offs for finding solutions."
The most recent publication of Issues in Ecology, "Setting Limits: Using Air Pollution Thresholds to Protect and Restore U.S. Ecosystems", is devoted to a comprehensive look at the nitrogen cascade and ways to use the concept of critical thresholds to conduct research and establish public policy.  It's also got a lot of really scary warnings about acidifying fresh water (every wonder why there are so many reports about fish kills?) and mercury deposition and accumulation up the food chain...but since we are at Wit's End already, we'll stick to nitrogen and vegetation:

It starts right out, in the Introduction with this:

"Natural ecosystems have been altered in various ways by nitrogen, sulfur, and mercury deposited in rain, snow, or as gases and particles in the atmosphere. Through decades of scientific research, scientists have documented how local, regional, and global sources of air pollution can produce profound changes in ecosystems. These changes include acidification of soils and surface waters, harmful algal blooms and low oxygen conditions in estuaries, reduced diversity of native plants, high levels of mercury in fish and decreased tolerance to other stresses, such as pests, disease, and climate change."
So, pollution underlies decreased tolerance to other stresses, such as pests, disease and climate change - meaning warmer temperatures and altered patterns of precipitation and wind.  Why do scientists refuse to acknowledge what they themselves say?

"Pollutants can accumulate with little noticeable impact on plants or animals until major changes occur as a tipping point is reached (Box 1). These changes are measured by scientifically determined chemical or biological indicators (Box2). Such environmental changes might eliminate a single sensitive species, or a broad shift may occur in biodiversity throughout an ecosystem. Once a species or ecosystem has passed a tipping point, a return to the previous state may not be possible."
Definition of tipping point:  "The point at which an ecosystem shifts to a new state or condition in a rapid, often irreversible, transformation."  Remember, we ARE at Point B1, barreling towards extinction:

"Line 'B' represents a rapid decline in ecosystem condition, with a clearly identified, ecological
threshold at which a tipping point occurs (B1)."

"A. Effects of Excess Nitrogen on Ecosystems"
"The nitrogen gas that makes up most of the Earth's atmosphere is inert, with little impact on ecosystems. Nitrogen converted to its reactive forms such as NH3 and NOx, however, can cause profound biological changes.  Activities such as fertilizer manufacturing, intensive livestock production and the burning of fossil fuels convert nitrogen to these reactive forms which can then enter and potentially over-fertilize ecosystems. This can lead to problems such as algal overgrowth in lakes, reduced water quality, declines in forest health, and decreases in aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity by favoring 'nitrogen loving' species at the expense of other species with low nitrogen preferences."

"Adding nitrogen to forests whose growth is typically limited by its availability may appear desirable, possibly increasing forest growth and timber production, but it can also have adverse effects such as increased soil acidification, biodiversity impacts, predisposition to insect infestations, and effects on beneficial root fungi called mycorrhizae. As atmospheric nitrogen deposition onto forests and other

ecosystems increases, the enhanced availability of nitrogen can lead to chemical and biological changes collectively called “nitrogen saturation.” As nitrogen deposition from air pollution accumulates in an ecosystem, a progression of effects can occur as levels of biologically available nitrogen increase (Figure 5)."
"Because of the multiple potential effects of nitrogen deposition in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, the ecosystem services affected vary depending on the sensitive receptors found within a given ecosystem and the level of atmospheric deposition. Prominent examples of affected ecosystem services in forests include timber production, climate regulation, recreational use, and biodiversity loss."
The authors end with a plea to use ecological thresholds to establish science-based policy!  Good luck with that:

"The National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for air pollutants such as NOx and SOx are based on concentrations of these pollutants in ambient air rather than on deposition levels experienced by ecosystems. Scientific progress has improved our ability to relate ambient air concentrations to atmospheric deposition inputs and effects through the estimation of critical loads. The secondary standards provide a framework for addressing these issues and ample evidence exists for applying  and modeling to the case of acidifying deposition impacts on sensitive aquatic ecosystems."
"Similar applications of secondary standards toward protection of terrestrial ecosystems from the effects of nitrogen and sulfur pollution would also be of great benefit. Nitrogen as ammonia and ammonium (NH3 and NH4+), are increasingly important sources of nitrogen air pollution, but are not regulated by EPA as criteria pollutants in the NAAQS."
"Air pollution thresholds based on science provide a mechanism for evaluating the extent to which ecosystem services have been compromised and for restoring impaired ecosystems. Establishing priorities such as the levels at which various ecosystem services should be maintained will require the mutual engagement of public stakeholders, policymakers, and scientists. Use of ecological thresholds for

assessing the impacts of air pollution on essential ecosystem services and for informing public policy is gaining ground. These ecological thresholds provide a strong basis for development of policy thresholds and offer a scientifically sound approach to protecting and restoring U.S. ecosystems."

As usual, and typical, the Advisory Board of this milquetoast publication is tainted by the presence of a polluting industry representative, in this case by Robert A. Goldstein, of the Electric Power Research Institute.  By now, most people understand that the banksters and the lobbyists on K Street go round and round through a revolving door of government appointments.  Fewer people realize the same systems operates between, say, the US Forest Service and Georgia Pacific timber interests, between the Dept. of Ag and Monsanto, between EPA and big polluters.  So, what entity is the benevolently named EPRI, you may ask?  Well, according to their website, this "research" group:  " funded by membership participation in its research activities. Members represent more than 90% of the electricity generated and delivered in the U.S. International participation extends to 40 countries".  By way of enhancing the credibility of their "research" about the burdensome costs of meeting EPA proposed regulations, they approvingly quote Senator James "climate criminal" Inhofe.  You can stop laughing now.
I'm pretty sure I found this wonderful tune over at The Downward Spiral:

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