Friday, June 15, 2012

Rapid Ruin

"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91
Here they are - pictures from ramblings around Seattle.  It's been a struggle to force myself to document the condition of trees.  Although a few individual specimens and certainly in the aggregate they look better in the Pacific Northwest than any trees back in New Jersey...and flowers in the carefully tended gardens are pretty...that doesn't change the fact that the decline is so blatantly precipitous since I last visited two years ago that I am finding it personally deeply unsettling, particularly because it's wet here - always, very wet.
There is simply no possibility that the bare branches and dead trees are from drought or temperature, the usual villains - whether due to natural variability or a changing climate - blamed by foresters.  Something mysterious and malevolent is stalking through our world, causing trees and shrubs here to exhibit the same progression of symptoms as the East Coast - bare branches, damaged leaves, and rampant lichen that is prying bark from tree trunks.  Below is the crown of an oak across from Richard's house, where I've been staying in the hilly Queen Anne section of the city.  It is a typical example in that some others are better while many are far worse.  In general,  leaves are in suspended animation - they started to come out but still, in mid-June, they remain in bizarrely arrested development, most of them abnormally small and pale.
For this early in the growing season, when leaves should be supple and bright green and soft, a troubling percentage already are brittle or limp, shriveled or curled.  Even the foliage of many annual ornamentals have stippling, marginal burning, chlorosis (yellowing) and even necrosis (completely brown).  Evergreen leaves like laurel and azalea are mottled, while pine, cedar and hemlock needles are yellowing or bronzed.  Insects and birds are scarce.
Is it just because I am so far from home that, perusing the headlines, it appears as though practically everyone in the world is in suspended animation as well - collectively waiting with abated breath as the horrid rumblings of disaster accrue?  So far, reports such that extreme weather records continue to be broken everywhere including the hottest spring in the US ever roil just beneath the surface.  Buried in the juvenile spats between Bristol and Levi, the ostentatious "star-studded" fundraiser at the home of Sarah Jessica Parker for Obama, are ominous rumblings of rising beef prices due to unprecedented parched ranges, depicted as a temporary hike predicted to become more affordable after ranchers restock in a few years (ha!)...and nary a reference global warming.
Barely acknowledged are stories of hailstorms smashing holes through windshields, without a hint of any role from climate change.  Here in progressive Seattle where signs everywhere encourage recycling and composting and green shopping, there also are plans to run massive amounts of coal by rail right across downtown for shipment to China, and local papers excitedly report that drilling in an ice free Arctic will result in beneficial jobs all around the harbor.  Much as it pains me I have to wonder, when Joe Romm's once uncompromisingly forthright source, his ClimateProgress blog, is usurped by politicized zombie zealots who extol false solutions for replacing coal - shamelessly including so-called "innovative" biofuels derived from anything flammable (from genetically engineered tobacco, to whiskey byproducts and seaweed) and most egregiously, of all things, fracked methane...what the hell is going on?? [update: latest post titled "The Beauty of Industrial Energy Efficiency" ...seriously!  Why Grandma, What Great Big Efficiencies you Have! - All the better to gobble you up, my dear!]

Alex Budd wrote something of an explanation in his detailed and annotated appeal to fellow environmentalists, published in Deep Green Resistance, of which the following is but a part:
The earth isn’t dying; it is being killed. And “clean energy” will only make things worse. 
I should probably begin by introducing myself; my name is Alex, and I’m a recovering renewable energy advocate. For years, I was a victim of desperation and hope; I petitioned and parlayed, chanted and canvassed; I brimmed with excitement at the prospect of “green jobs” and a “renewable energy economy.” I still see much of myself in many of you. 
I know what it’s like. I know exactly how it feels to look around and see a world not just dying but being suffocated, being tortured and maimed, sacrificed on the twin altars of profit and production. As a young person today, I know what it’s like to fear the future, to fear for my future. I—like many of you—have read all the studies and reports I need to see to know what’s coming, what disaster is now screaming, all but unchallenged, down the track upon us.
I know what it’s like to want a way out, a path from this desert of despair to something, anything that will shift us from the deadly course our society is on, some simple solution, the kind of sane idea that even a politician could support.
Like many of you, for years I thought “clean energy” was the answer to the despair that weighs heavier on our collective shoulders and conscience every day. It seemed realistic. It seemed achievable. It seemed aesthetic. And most importantly, I thought it would save the planet. 
...My perfect world was anything but; nevertheless, for some reason, I didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that a world run by solar and wind power (or hydro or geothermal or biofuels or every other potential source I’ve ever heard of) would of necessity be a world with a global industrial mining infrastructure, along with all the horrible pollution and problems it encompasses. It would also, of necessity, be a world with a global industrial manufacturing industry. It would, again of necessity, be a world with a global transportation infrastructure. 
Now step back for a moment; these are all things that we’re already protesting, destructive agendas which we’re already fighting—and losing—battles. Mining, manufacturing, and global transportation—these are all inherently destructive and polluting.
For the past 5 years, I believed in the “inspiring audacity” of renewable energy with a passion to rival Al Gore or Bill McKibben. 
Yet if we preach a holy trinity of “wind, sun and hydro” because we believe they provide relief from an already collapsing biosphere, where does this leave us?
We call ourselves environmentalists; we call ourselves guardians and protectors, defending against the likes of Exxon-Mobil. But what is it you’re defending? Is it civilization? Is it the economy? Is it the sterile and plastic world you now call home? 
Or are you defending—with your words, actions, and body—life? Maybe, like some of us, you’re fighting for a world where children can breathe the air and drink the water; a world where their bodies aren’t bombarded with chemicals and carcinogens from the day they’re born. Maybe, what you want is a world without deforestation, a world where forests are recognized for the living communities that they are. Maybe you want a world that isn’t being destroyed, but is more alive each year than the year before. 
…It’s time to stop the lies. It is time to see support for “renewable energy” for what it is—the continuation of a dominating and oppressive economic and social system that murders and enslaves people around the world, and that is systematically destroying and dismantling life on earth.
As much as it may hurt, it needs to be said; renewable energy will destroy the natural world as surely as Chevron. There are no industrial or technological solutions to the death machine of industrial society that is swallowing whole what remains of this planet’s—our planet’s—most   vital and fundamental life support systems. 
Before the arrival of industrial civilization on this continent, you could breathe the air and drink the water. A short 500 years later, every single mother in the world has dioxin (a chemical commonly called “the most toxic in the world”) in her breast milk, 98% of forests have been destroyed, half of all men and one third of all women now get cancer7, and the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean. Neither wind farms nor a “Solartopia™” will fix any of these things. 
We cannot afford to waste any more time or energy. We must confront the reality of our situation, that industrial civilization is predicated on the death of the natural, living world.
For us, the question now becomes; do we want hairdryers, or do we want safe water? Do we want HD televisions, or do we want migratory songbirds? Do we want ten episodes of “The Simpsons” at the click of a mouse, or do we want mountains? Do we want “e-readers,” or do we want a world without lakes of radioactive waste? Do we want our lifestyles of privilege and consumption, or do we want a living planet? Because in spite of our daydreams and delusions, we can’t kill this planet and live on it too. 
I write this as an open letter to environmentalists, but to be honest, it isn’t truly an open letter. Many  of you (probably most) will continue to call for these unsustainable forms of energy, despite knowing that to do so is to beg murder upon the migratory birds, the (very few remaining) unpolluted streams, rural Chinese farmers, and ultimately upon what remains of the living world. Many of you don’t want a truly sustainable way of life, but to sustain a functionally unsustainable civilization. Many of your salaries and personal identities depend on “clean energy,” and you won’t dare challenge it. And for me, this is incredibly saddening and disheartening, as I know many such people. So this letter is not written to you.
This letter is addressed with the utmost intimacy to those of you who are like I am; who yearn for a just world, a world without cancer, and lakes of toxic sludge, imperialism, or murdered birds.  This letter is addressed to those of you who want a living world, to those who know in the most profound places of your heart that the needs of the natural world MUST come before the needs of an economic system.
In the end, I can only speak for myself. I know what I choose; I choose a world that has wild trout and bison. I choose a world with mountains. I choose a world where I can breathe the air and drink the water and see the stars at night. I choose a world with more monarch butterflies each year than the year before. I choose a world where no one dies or is killed so I can play fantasy football—and if that means a world without fantasy football (SPOILER ALERT: it does), then so be it.
Our collective fantasy of renewable energy as a savior come to forgive us of our sins is just that; a fantasy, and whether we want to acknowledge it or not, this way of life is over, and “clean energy” is totally and entirely incapable of saving it. 
Industrialism, with its imperatives of growth & production, must be abandoned. Those systems which are destroying the planet—industrial agriculture, the extractive industries (industrial mining, fishing, logging, etc), the fossil fuel infrastructure, and exploitative systems of power—must be strategically dismantled and replaced by independent cultures of direct democracy that are fully integrated with their land bases and local ecosystems. The Earth cannot afford any alternative, for the alternative is to let the dominant culture consume what little remains of the natural world.
Preserving life—in any meaningful sense of the word—will require bringing an end to the perceived entitlement to live in a way that destroys the living systems of the earth. 
As Lierre Keith says,
“For ‘sustainable’ to mean anything, we must embrace and then defend the bare truth: the planet is primary. The life-producing work of a million species is literally the earth, air, and water that we depend on…If we use the word ‘sustainable’ and don’t mean that, then we are liars of the worst sort: the kind who let atrocities happen while we stand by and do nothing.8 
What do you want? Because we can’t have it all. 
Where do you draw the line? Because ultimately there can be no justice—for humans or the earth—in an industrial society. 
Where does your loyalty lie? These aren’t theoretical questions; they are some of the most important things we need to be asking ourselves right now. What is sacred to you—a living world, or central heating? Hold that question close, and whisper it to your heart; it’s time for an answer. 
And it’s time to act on that answer, to carve out our purpose and forge resilience, to plant our feet firmly on the earth and defend our only home with our lives; for nothing else will do.

In Professor Ugo Bardi's Seneca's Cliff model of collapse, pollution is a primary contribution that colludes with other influences to result in rapid ruin.  His calculations are described in depth at his blog, Cassandra's Legacy, where he observes:  " the case of oil extraction from the 48 US lower states, persistent pollution has mainly taken the shape of CO2 and other greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere. This is a factor that has not yet bitten us back, but, eventually, someone will have to pay for the damage done in the form of global warming."

A guest post at Cassandra's Legacy, by Hannes Rollin, introduces his new iphone app for Seneca's Cliff, where the parameters can be adjusted, for fun.  Of the configuration depicted here he says:
"Although this run looks catastrophic as well with long periods of almost zero economic activity, it already maintains two highly optimistic assumptions: First, resources are strictly renewable no matter how much strained, and second, that pollution (gray), which spikes sharply according to the initial economic peak, is handled completely by natural self-repair."

Pollution handled completely by natural self-repair?  Oh, you might indeed label that optimistic!  Also optimistic is any assumption that effects of pollution consist mainly of global warming from greenhouse gases, since that is but one facet of a much broader existential threat from many sources of contamination and their synergistic interactions.

Criticism frequently dismisses the warnings of doomsayers since past predictions haven't come to pass, and attribute doomerism to some neurotic and unrealistic compulsion.  But the fact is, we've always been doomed.  You only have to think about it for a few minutes to figure out that endless expansion and growth and extraction and pollution on a finite planet is going to fizzle out sometime or other.  Personally, I blame Prometheus - ever since we harnessed fire, it's only been a matter of time.   Should I envy the vast majority of people who manage to not know this?  Or should I be grateful for knowledge?
Of course, I don't know anything about models and wouldn't know what to do with an iphone if I had one.  But I am persuaded of a couple of things that pertain to the perennially fascinating question - when will the anticipated collapse commence?  One is, that the ecocidal properties of pollution far exceed climate change and Two, based on an unsentimental assessment of the acceleration of ecosystem collapse - not laboratory experiments - it's obvious to me that we are poised to go hurtling down that cliff far sooner than the "experts" portend when they extrapolate from data that is outmoded before they analyze let alone get through peer-review and publish.  So perhaps this provides an answer to the question explored recently by Dmitri Orlov in his presentation,  "Fragility and Collapse; slowly at first, then all at once" to which a commenter named Corey wrote:
Excellent post!
If I may, the problem I see is we (or at least most of us on this site) recognize that the timing of the collapse cannot be ascertained, yet we are all still predisposed to think that that the collapse will be "soon".
Is there ever going to be a time when we think it will not be "soon"? If it hasn't all collapsed in 2016, will we still be thinking it is "soon"? In 2021? 2030? 2045? Death?
Is there ever a time when we can get out of crisis preparation mode, or are we (thanks to this lack of timing and our predisposition to think "soon") destined to be on a state of high alert til the day we die?
Growing up, there was a guy in the area who really didnt live much of a life because he was constantly preparing for the "upcoming collapse". Over time, he alienated friends, family, spouse, etc, with his preoccupation for preparing for the imminent collapse. This was back in the early 70s. As far as I know, he died in 2004, alone, destitute, really not much of a life to speak of.
And therein lies my fear as I see too much of myself in him. Each day, I see friends, family, etc, passing over Dimitry's crumbling bridge. Even the ones who know it's crumbling are still crossing it each day, going out, living life, etc. -- while I sit there on the sidelines, afraid to cross it even once.
Will my bias towards thinking the collapse will be soon prevent me from ever crossing that bridge? Or will I die still waiting because the collapse did not happen in my lifetime?
Some of his contemporaries surely recognized the writing was on the wall for the Roman Empire when Emperor Diocletian started kicking the can in AD 305. Yet not a single one of them was alive to witness the collapse a full 170+ years later...
Well, Corey's hesitation is sad and sweet and I do agree to a certain extent with his sentiments, except it isn't going to be anything like 170 years before we have collapse, if only because there's no other planet we can turn to with what is now global, not regional, overshoot.  Aren't we fortunate to have front-row seats at the finish line?  We can't know exactly where the finish line is but I'm fairly certain that anyone reading this is situated within excellent viewing range.

Speaking of pollution, the rest of this post is stolen from a synopsis by Martin Desvaus, of Clive Ponting's 2007 "A Green History of the World" Part 8, which is a quick tour of the challenge presented by garbage and sewage disposal and toxic accidents through the ages.  Read it and see if you think the pervasive and pernicious influence of human waste is fairly represented in predictions of collapse, and ask why other life forms don't seem to have the same problem.  I don't know!
[I neve never seen lichen ON needles before - only on stems, branches and bark...a first!]
Chapter 16: Polluting the World
This, the longest chapter, opens with the shortest statement in the book: "Pollution has a long history.”   With it, Ponting underlines that waste – an unavoidable consequence of life and indeed any physical process – has been taken to new heights by humans:The creation of wastes has been one of the distinguishing characteristics of every human society. 
For thousands of years the chief struggle was over sanitary arrangements and the main challenge was to obtain unpolluted water supplies.  These problems became ever more acute as human numbers and urban life increased, but widespread industrial production and the use of new
technologies introduced new pollutants and brought new risks to human health and the environment. 
Contamination was at first essentially localised – generally confined to a city, river, waste dump or mine.  By the late twentieth century pollution had increased to an unprecedented scale  – affecting industrial regions, oceans, entire continents and even global regulatory mechanisms.  Human understanding of the consequences… has always tended to lag well behind the release of pollutants into the environment.
In earlier societies it is possible to find evidence of many of the features which characterise the response to contemporary pollution: fatalistic acceptance of pollution as an inevitable consequence of human activities; authorities balking at prevention or control measures; lack of foresight and technical understanding; the problem of allocating responsibility; a preference for short-term local fixes rather than long-term solutions and a failure of individuals or companies to take responsibility for their actions.  Attempts to control pollution are as old as the problem itself but the response has usually been belated and inadequate with a poor record of co-operation and enforcement. 
The only upside to the accumulation of so much detritus was through archaeology, which has uncovered so much knowledge of human societies going back hundreds of thousands of years.  Early societies only produced low-level waste such as mainly animal bones and blunt tools.  Disposal of excrement without contaminating water supplies and causing human health issues was the earliest waste problem.  For hunter-gatherers leading a nomadic existence, this problem will rarely have arisen, since sites were only occupied for limited periods.  However, the advent of settled societies inevitably brought many instances where water supplies from local streams and rivers were contaminated by human and animal waste.
These persisted in areas around small rural settlements (possibly even to the present day), but for larger conurbations the problem had to be solved by transporting water over longer distances via major underground and bridged aqueducts, as in the case of the Roman and Greek cities where they were soon a familiar sight in their elevated form across the ancient Mediterranean from Spain and southern France to Carthage and
As cities became established in the north and west of Europe, the water supply problem followed and solutions to it developed. Lead pipes were used in London (1236). Hollow logs became the conduits of preference in e.g. Zittau (1374) and Breslau (1479).  As cities grew, their water supply and effluent disposal problems outgrew local natural resources leading, after a trail of many disasters, to the use of artesian wells, the creation of reservoirs and the development of filtration plants.  Water usage still remained limited up until the early 20th century: it was supplied to distribution points within the towns and cities from which it had to be carried to houses in containers.
For those of us who complain if the water supply is turned off for a couple of hours, consider this:  In eighteenth century Paris water was taken round the city by 20,000 water carriers using buckets. In mid-nineteenth-century London out of 70,000 houses in the centre of the city 17,000 depended on their own wells and the rest relied on standpipes in the street, about one for every twenty or thirty houses, which normally supplied water for about an hour a day for three days a week.

With increasing population and technical developments in water and sewage treatment, the global consumption of water quadrupled in the 50 years prior to 1990. Such a simple statistic hides the fact that, in 1990, the average American consumed 7200 litres per day – 288 times more than the average Indian. 
Water shortages have not been confined to the third world:  Oklahoma and Texas had lost 18 percent of their irrigated farmland by the 1980s and 2,300 square miles in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska had also gone out of production due to lack of water.   Using modern technology Saudi Arabia has been able to irrigate large desert areas but this relies on underground aquifers which are being used up at a far faster rate than they are being replenished.
Today, the predominant problem of human waste disposal has taken second place to the much larger problems presented by modern industrial and agricultural pollution.  The extensive use of chemicals, pesticides and fertilisers causes run-off into rivers, aquifers and the seas.
The  whole  history of waste management centres on the incremental approach to the solution of man‘s excremental issues:    “There is no doubt that someone living in the industrialised world in the twentieth century who was transported back in time to a city at any period earlier than about a century ago would be horrified and overwhelmed by the smell. This came from piles of rotting rubbish and human and animal excrement mixed with pools of urine, which often blocked the streets or were occasionally swept into the local stream or river to decompose there.” 
The lack of lavatories led to people using any available open spaces. “In eighteenth century Paris a row of  yew  trees in the Tuileries provided an open air toilet and when the authorities drove people away they simply used the Seine instead.”
Other types of waste had their problems.  Some choice descriptions leave us to consider one of the upsides of 20th century life.   Jacques Caille on his visit to Rabat in early nineteenth century: “the streets of the city often show a layer of liquid mire more than ten centimetres deep. When waste matter has been removed it is thrown into the sea; or often it is simply heaped up at the gates to the city, where it forms a veritable cess pool.”
Frederick Engels wrote of an area of working class Manchester in the 1840s which boasted a single, open privy serving 200 people:  “This privy is so dirty that the inhabitants can only enter or leave the court by wading through puddles of stale urine and excrement. 
After 1815, the interlaced problems of sewage and water supply began to be solved when waste flushed with water could be transferred to surface streams, thus transferring the sewage into open rivers.  This only moved the problem and did not eradicate it.  By the second half of the nineteenth century, the start of sewage treatment gradually led to alleviation of the problem in the industrialised world over the next century or so.
The slowness of universal purification can be ascertained from these snippets:  “Dundee in 1910 only had three hotels and two private houses with water closets (and even then they only worked with buckets of water)… As late as 1960 two-thirds of urban homes in the Soviet Union were not connected to a sewer… In Paris, in 1925, half the houses had no sewage system… In 1974 over half the population [of Tokyo] did not possess mains drainage…”In the third world, problems of treating waste still persist. 
Ponting states that: “In Manila, untreated domestic sewage now makes up seventy percent of the volume of the Pasig river.  In total, eighty per cent of the people in the Third World (in other words an overwhelming majority of the world's citizens) have no sanitary facilities and therefore still suffer from the disease and squalor that this causes.”
Some pollution problems have disappeared.  An example of a transient problem is that of horse droppings.  Always a limited irritant, it became almost unbearable in medieval cities up to the mid 20th century as the horse was the main source of transport within cities.  Once the motor car became the favoured means of transport that problem was replaced with another invisible and possibly more insidious one. 
The advent of coal, as wood became in short supply, brought another pollutant: coal smoke.  In London, a ban imposed in 1307 was largely ignored and the west end of the city became more desirable to live in as the prevailing westerly winds tended to keep the air clean.  Provincial cities such as Sheffield and Newcastle fared no better.  Even in Oxford … classical marbles brought back to England were damaged very quickly‟.
By 1880, London homes had well over three million coal-burning fireplaces which under adverse conditions produced smog on foggy days. In February of that year over 2000 people died as a result.  Only after 1952, when 4000 people died, was the clean air act introduced, in 1956. Similar developments occurred in other major cities around the world 
Industrial processes have always caused pollution, especially of waterways, the traditional conduit of industrial waste.  In Roman times, mining and processing of lead and gold created noxious and deadly fumes and poisonous rivers.  In Japan, pollution from the Ashio copper mine led to its closure in 1790. When opened later, the waste caused the death of fish, people and animals and left a legacy of 100,000 acres of contaminated land.
[a close up below - needles are gone- replaced by lichen]
Tanning of animal hides, linen bleaching, cotton dying, starch making and other processes all left their mark on the local communities and rivers: “In the sixteenth century, the Thames near London still contained barbel, trout, bream, dace, gudgeon and flounders but  by the eighteenth century they were extinct, killed by the increasing pollution. 
The industrial revolution in the late eighteenth century caused a 46-fold increase in world coal consumption and a 60-fold increase in iron production.  Growing chemical industries produced large amounts of sodium carbonate and hydrogen chloride. These processes led to a massive increase in pollutants and emissions. Inspectorates, set up to control the efflux, were slow to act and mainly ineffective  against the industrial lobby which often won the day in disputes.  Despite the obvious damage to people and the environment, the drive for economic growth in the twentieth century produced only regulated pollution of rivers and waterways.
The result was large areas of contaminated waters and wasteland in countries all over the world. As one mid-nineteenth-century Englishman observed: “The sturdy hawthorn makes an attempt to look gay every spring; but its leaves… dry up like tea leaves and soon drop off.  Cattle will not fatten…and sheep throw their lambs.  Cows too cast their calves; and the human animals suffer from smarting eyes, disagreeable sensations in the throat, an irritating cough, and difficulties of breathing.”
During the second half of the twentieth century, conditions in the former Soviet Union, China, Japan and Brazil were significantly worse than in nineteenth century European industrialised cities.  The size of the problem was much larger due to the drive for economic growth  – at any price  – and pollution was more deadly.  In Most (Czechoslovakia) children had to carry portable respirators since sulphur dioxide (SO2) levels were twenty times higher than WHO maximum recommended levels.
Conditions in Krakow typified many growing cities in unregulated economies.  There, the levels of sulphur dioxide were one hundred times the recommended maximum:…170 tons of lead, 7 tons of cadmium, 470 tons of zinc and 18 tons of iron are dumped from the atmosphere onto the historic city of Crakow [sic] every year. On over a third of the days in the year there are smog conditions, almost two-thirds of the food produced in the area is contaminated and unfit for human consumption and 70 per cent of the water can not be drunk.
A third of the rivers are devoid of all life, the Vistula is unfit even for industrial use over twothirds of its length because it is so corrosive and offshore an area of 100,000 square kilometres of the Baltic is biologically dead from the poisons brought down by the rivers.  The roll call of environmental destruction continues: in Tokyo (1960) fish were extinct in
three-quarters of its rivers; in Chinese industrial cities sulphur dioxide levels are seven times over the WHO limit; in Cubatao (Brazil) the air pollution level is twice the WHO lethal limit and 80 per cent of plant life has been destroyed.
Pollution was often exported intentionally or otherwise by being carried on airstreams and in waterflows well beyond national boundaries, as exemplified by acid rain, which was first identified in Manchester as far back as the 1850s.  Acid rain is produced by dissolution of SO2 and nitrous oxides in atmospheric moisture (all  generated from coal-burning power plant) to produce sulphuric and nitric acids.  These ubiquitous pollutants, with which we all grew up in the last century, were taken as a fact of life since they had always been there. 
Unknown to almost all, it was a devastating invader on the environment with shocking statistics which was not tackled until the late 1980s.  Global sulphur dioxide production rose from about 10 million tons a year in 1860 to 50 million tons in 1910 and to over 150 million tons by the 1970s… ninety per cent of the sulphur dioxide in the air over Europe now comes from human created sources and in just ten years the Sudbury copper and nickel smelter in Ontario, Canada emitted more sulphur dioxide than all the volcanoes (the main natural source) in the history of the earth… Highly acid rain has been noted on a number of occasions, often as low as a PH of 2.1 (vinegar is 2.4) and once at Wheeling, West Virginia, in the heart of one of the most polluted areas of the United States, a PH of 1.5 (battery acid is 1) occurred.
[red alder - the center tree has fallen over and the bark of the two on the sides is peeling off]
Acid rain affects buildings, attacking limestone, and such damage is evident in many historic buildings in Eastern Europe.  It begins to affect wild life when PH falls below 6.0 (PH 6.5 is neutral) especially when combined with heavy toxic metals; “In water with a PH of 5.5 salmon are affected and molluscs are rare. Between 5.5 and 5.0 there is severe damage to eggs and larvae and snails can not survive below a PH of 5.2. Fish can not live much below a PH of 5.0 and at a level of  4.5 even the flora is badly affected.” 
Accumulation of acidified snow has devastating results in the spring melt when water courses and thus lakes receive a burst of acidity. This happened in Sweden and Norway as a result of receiving much acid rain from Britain throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. The PH of Swedish lakes, 6.0 in the 1950s, fell to below 5.0 by the 1980s – 130 years after the problem of acid rain had been noted.  Only then were steps taken to mitigate the problem in some countries.  In 1984, some industrialised countries agreed to cut their sulphur dioxide emissions by 30 per cent by 1993, and Austria and Switzerland actually cut theirs by 50% by the late 1980s.
From the 17th century to the mid 20th century many people died of industrial pollution.  Exposure to lead (pottery glazing), antimony (glass making), mercury (hat trade), lint (cotton mills) and exposure to coal and oil caused a range of illnesses from ulcerated lungs, various types of consumption and cancers.  In heavily industrialised areas, the population at large – not just the workers – were also affected by coal burning and the presence of heavy metals.  This was exacerbated by poor diet and living conditions.  Infant mortality in upper Silesia, for example, was 4.4 per cent; in Katowice:  “Over a third of all children inKatowice have symptoms of lead poisoning and overall cancer rates are 30 per cent higher and respiratory disease rates are 47 per cent higher than in the rest of Poland.  … one in five of the Polish population face serious health hazards from high sulphur dioxide levels in the atmosphere.”
In the second half of the twentieth century, pollution from synthetic chemicals rose dramatically and disproportionately to population growth. Their toxicity and resistance to natural degradation meant they posed lasting and serious threats to the environment and biodiversity.  Apart from plastics and synthetic fibres, chemical companies developed energy-hungry detergents which yield higher profit levels (50%) than the natural alternative of soap (30%).  Resulting phosphate pollution levels in water supplies rose dramatically:  “The scale of these changes can be judged by the figures for US synthetic production, which has increased from one billion pounds weight in 1945 to 400 billion pounds in the 1980s.”   Two  of the biggest problems were generated by pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Highly toxic pesticides (DDT and organophosphates) had to be sprayed in large quantities to ensure contact with the targets.  Many pests eventually became immune e.g.: ―Twenty-five out of the thirty-six pests that attack cotton are now resistant and there are twenty-four types of mosquito resistant to DDT.”  But: “The increasing use of pesticides has not, in practice, reduced crop losses – they rose from 32 per cent to 37 percent in the United States between the 1940s and the 1980s.” 
PCBs are one of the most carcinogenic chemicals known to us.  Developed in the 1930s, they were used in large oil-filled transformers and other appliances as well as an additive in products such as paints. After being banned in Japan and the USA in the 1970s, they continued to be exported to the EC until ten years later when they were banned there as well.  By then about two million tons had been made and about sixty-five percent of the total is still in use.”  The 35 per cent removed has been dumped in the oceans or left to rot in toxic waste dumps, where residues have contaminated water supplies.”
Their ubiquity and toxicity can not be overstated: “They are very stable… highly dangerous… and tend to accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals. PCB contamination has been found in human milk across the industrialised world, and even small traces have resulted in birth defects.  …and in the Wadden sea off the Netherlands about half of the seals are sterile because of PCB poisoning. 
Major industrial accidents on a large scale have also exacted a toll on human and animal life and the environment.  Major oil spills (e.g. Torre Canyon  – 1967; Exxon Valdez  – 1989) and chemical incidents (e.g. Seveso, Italy  – 1976, Bhopal, India  – 1984) have occurred.
The disposal of waste and obsolescent products became a growth industry, as increased amounts of packaging and non-returnable containers became standard practice.  As examples, Ponting cites that in the USA when “…beer consumption rose thirty-seven percent … the number of non-returnable beer bottles increased by 595 per cent.” Also:  In the 1940s the United States produced about one million tons of hazardous waste. Forty years later the total had risen to over 250 million tons a year.” 
Only after the 1970s were any attempts made to control the toxic waste problem. One involved  exporting the problem to eastern Europe and the third world where regulations were more lax – or nonexistent.  The longer term effects of dumping are manifold.  Schools and homes built on landfill have had to be demolished in Holland and North America; asbestos dumped in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, resulted in over seventy  deaths; methane leaking from the Georgswerder dump in Hamburg caused an explosion in 1984 and still releases over 100 million cubic metres of gas each year. 
The medieval practice of polluting rivers, lakes and oceans continues.  “Many states such as Britain and the United States also dump untreated sewage sludge and since the 1960s incineration of toxic chemicals at sea (which produces toxic gases and residues) has become widespread – 100,000 tons are burnt in the North Sea alone.”
The advent of nuclear power since 1945, has brought with it threats associated with nuclear radiation which Ponting describes in alarming terms.  The safe level of radiation dosage is unknown although, as a naturally occurring mineral ore, uranium has always been with us and is responsible for low level radiation.  By contrast, the mining and processing of uranium ore to generate fuel creates highly-concentrated radioactive rods which have extremely high and dangerous radiation levels and which, when spent in reactors, still have to be disposed safely, making the protection of workers and the public a major issue. 
Several nuclear disasters have occurred since the inception of nuclear power.  Leaving aside the use of nuclear weapons which are designed to wipe out people, several  civil reactors and associated sites have caused major alerts and radioactive and problems.  The fallout of 458 nuclear explosions between 1945 and 1985 has had unknown effects on humans. Ponting states that many deaths have occurred from mining and processing uranium fuel:  “ …in the twentieth century half of all uranium miners have died of lung cancer  – a rate five times higher than that of the population as a whole. …milling of uranium ore causes about 4,000 deaths a year from lung cancer in the United States alone.”
Attempts to dispose of waste via dumping have also caused major problems: ―In 1949 the Soviet authorities started releasing liquid nuclear waste into the Techna river near Sverdlovsk. By 1952 it had reached Lake Karachai near Kyshytm, where the heat from the decaying radioactive
material dried out the lake and the radioactive bed of the lake had to be covered in concrete to stop wind erosion spreading the dangerous pollution any further. 
The internal combustion engine has been an increasingly major contributor  to pollution since World War II, emitting carbon dioxide, smoke, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide as well as other toxic organic compounds.  These react in the air to produce ozone and peroxides which can adversely affect photosynthesis and breathing.  Burning motor fuels produced photochemical smog and vast quantities of lead until lead free fuels were introduced.  Measures were taken to reduce pollution from the refineries by 90 per cent in the 1940s and 1950s but we had to wait until the 1970s for the availability of lead-free petrol and for catalytic converters to be developed and fitted to motor vehicles.
The first smog occurred in Los Angeles (which has a natural inversion layer) in 1943 and by the late 1980s it affected over 100 American cities.  Los Angeles itself suffered from it for over 200 days in a year.  In Tokyo, 50,000 people were disabled by it in 1972 and in Mexico City there were 312 days of smog in 1988.  Catalytic converters helped remove the most harmful chemical from exhausts, but they  could do nothing about the major pollutant  – carbon dioxide. 
Photochemical smog illustrates the cocktail effect of pollutants.  When the whole gamut of pollutants – exhaust fumes, CFCs, acid rain, heavy metals, excess ozone and other toxic chemicals such as tetrachloroethylene (dry cleaning fluid) and trichloroethylene (lubricant)
– mix together in various combinations, there is generated a range of cocktails which can adversely affect many things, in particular trees
Tetrachloroethylene, for example, reacts with ozone and UV light to produce the herbicide TCA.  Consequently:  Most of the great industrial areas were rapidly deforested… In Norway fluoride emissions from aluminium smelters have killed all pines within a four mile radius … no trees grow for twelve miles downwind of the magnesite brick factory at Satke in the Urals … In West Germany 8 percent of the conifers were damaged in 1982, 50 per cent by 1984 and 87 per cent two years later ... in Poland three-quarters of all forests are affected (about 100 million trees) …Overall more than 20 million acres of forest in Europe had been damaged by the mid-1980s (an area equivalent to a third of the British Isles).
Wildlife all over the world has been affected by artificial chemicals.  DDT has been a major culprit as, when sprayed, it can be carried on the wind over vast distances.  “When in 1983-4 the East Germans sprayed DDT…residues were detected over a 1,000 mile range from North of Stockholm to the south of France.” Food chains were affected, as illustrated by the attempt to use DDT at one part in 50 million to clear gnats at Clearlake, California, in 1949, 1954 and 1957:
The level of DDT found in plankton was 250 times greater than in the water, in frogs it was 2,000 times more, in fish 12,000 times and in the grebes who fed on the fish 80,000 times greater. As a result the grebes at the top of the food chain had 1,600 parts per million of DDT in their bodies; their eggshells became so thin that they cracked under the weight of the bird and of the 1,000 pairs of grebes in the area not one hatched a chick between 1950 and 1962.  It was the implications of this ecological disaster, which had been repeated elsewhere with other chemicals,
that led Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring. 
Pollution knows no bounds on earth:  Even cores from the Antarctic ice sheet, supposedly the last wilderness on earth and even more remote from the industrial centres of the northern hemisphere, show that lead levels have quadrupled since the eighteenth century.” 
Another pollutant is ozone.  An enemy at ground level where it attenuates plant photosynthesis, it is an ally 18 miles into the stratosphere where it absorbs damaging ultraviolet rays from the sun.  Unfortunately, it is vulnerable to CFCs which produce chlorine, one atom of which can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules.  CFCs were invented in the 1920s since when they have been used in refrigerators and spray cans among other applications.
When sprays were used or refrigerators scrapped, the discharged CFC gas would find its way up to the stratosphere and break down the ozone layer.  Production of CFCs rose from 100 tons in 1931 to 650,000 tons over 55 years. The result was a thinning ozone layer which, by 1982, became a hole with an area of the United States which drifted around over the lower southern hemisphere.  With the UV protection gone, skin cancer became rife in Australia and South America.  With growing public awareness of the problem, CFCs were eventually banned by international agreement.  It is likely, however, because of the long life of CFCs, that the hole will persist well into the 21st century. 
Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and CFCs are all greenhouse gases which, when present in the correct concentration, maintain a stable average temperature of the atmosphere, but when present in excess will cause it to warm. Many of these are produced when fossil fuels are burnt to provide the ever-increasing energy demands of mankind.
Ponting notes that:  Annual consumption of coal is now over one hundred times greater than it was in 1800 and annual oil consumption has increased more than two hundred-fold in the twentieth century.”  The waste from these processes has been primarily carbon dioxide, about half of which is absorbed in the oceans with the remainder going into the atmosphere to be used in plant growth. “The net result of these various human activities is that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by a third in the last two hundred years – from about 270 parts per million in 1750 to 350 parts per million in the late 1980s.” 
The increase in carbon dioxide emissions arising both from industrialisation and the conversion of forest to agriculture and paved areas has resulted in temperature increases: “Meteorological observations suggest that in the course of the twentieth century global temperatures have increased by 0.5 degrees C, with the 1940s being warmer and the 1950s and 1960s cooler than the average.    The 1980s were the warmest decade since records began …1990 was the warmest on record.” 
Methane, generated by animals, paddy fields and decaying vegetation further promotes global warming and as the tundra melts vast quantities are released, causing positive feedback to the whole process.  A report from the UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimates: „…emissions of greenhouse gases  will be equivalent to a doubling in current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2030.  This, according to the panel of experts, is likely to produce a temperature rise of between 1.4 - 4.5 degrees C with 2.5 degrees C the most likely outcome, above pre-1850 levels by 2030.‟
It goes on to conclude that:   “…consequences of global warming on this scale will be profound for the whole of the world.  Climatic patterns are likely to alter drastically but unevenly. … The most likely outcome is that the earth's vegetation belts will shift towards the poles, but in an uneven way.‟  With areas such as the Mediterranean and the North American plains getting drier, the contrast with earlier periods of climate change will be not just the magnitude  of the change (more than ever experienced  before by settled societies) but the rate of change.” 
...Ponting ends the chapter by putting our polluting activities into historical context:  Ecosystems all over the world have now been affected to varying degrees by pollution of various types. Even Antarctica has been polluted, so far-reaching has been the spread of industrial pollutants. Evidence about how resilient plants, animals and humans are to the risks
and long-term stresses associated with pollution is still accumulating.  It is, however, already apparent that the effects of pollutants have become more threatening.
Actions have been taken with very little thought for the consequences, particularly in the case of highly toxic chemical and CFC production. The output of greenhouse gases is likely to have the greatest and most widespread effects of all the pollutants so far produced by humans.  After ten thousand years of settled societies and only two hundred years of substantial industrialisation, human activities and the pollution they generate threaten irreversible changes on an unprecedented scale to the world‘s climatic system.
A little good news before a funny video by Richard Alley about chamber pots and indoor plumbing - first daughter Alice placed second with Hanovarian Somer Hit in the National Young Horse Dressage Championships at Moven Park in Leesburg, Virginia last weekend - and first with her Oldenburg mare Elfenfeuer in the five-year old division.  Congratulations, Alice, who trained them both herself, and take that, Ann Romney with your $300k made horses!


  1. Tokyo Professor: Deformities in cedar trees may be from Fukushima radiation — Sex abnormalities, malformed branches [PHOTOS]

  2. Solving problems of chemical waste: 596 chemicals end up in fracking fluids pumped into many hundreds of thousand gas wells.

  3. Large economies don't look so hot once Natural Assets are factored in.


  4. Thanks again for you efforts with another fantastic blog post. This one was particularly interesting to me being that I live in the PNW as well, north of Seattle in Vancouver BC. It is a bit startling to hear that you think the decline here has been precipitous since your last visit a few years ago.

    I first noticed the excessive tree deaths in summer 2009, as I've mentioned here in the comments before. Since then I've watched year after year as the same effects are noticed each spring and summer.

    That being said I have assumed that it must be getting worse with each passing year but it is difficult to quantify when you live here and see the same areas every day.

    To hear from someone that hasn't been here for a few years that it has gotten far far worse is saddening to me, but I believe it. I wish I had documented pictures for myself so I could see just how much it has changed. I think a lot of standing dead trees are often removed so that it tends to make things appear better than they are, or makes it much harder to quantify just how much have died.

    Your observations are confirmation enough for me that things have gotten far worse.

    On a side note I wanted to mention something interesting I observed while at a plant nursery with my mother a few weeks back.

    We both noted that this particular nursery had what appeared to be extremely healthy plants relative to others in the area. Very little yellowing of leaves or die-back like I've become accustomed to these days.

    When we were at the cashier checking out the lady unloading our cart of plants began to tell us about the requirements of the different plants we had bought.

    She mentioned that the ornamental millet would "perk up" once we got it home and into direct sunlight as the nurseries greenhouse employs a UV filter, which apparently this particular plant is not so fond of.

    It made me wonder though, how much increased UV ratings might be affecting the plants? I've heard that some years ago it was quite unusual to see UV ratings much higher than 11. Now it is not uncommon to see ratings as high as 17 in some parts of the world.

    It might be interesting to do an experiment and see how much a UV filter would help greenhouse plants.

    Please don't take that as an argument against the ozone evidence you've compiled. I think you are correct about that beyond the shadow of a doubt. I just wanted to add that observation I had as I wonder if UV increase is contributing, since we've undoubtedly screwed up our atmospheric shielding as well.

    Thanks again for all you've done on this topic, which I feel is almost surely the most important problem in our world right now.

  5. At last, some formal recognition of the scale of the impacts - but this blame fool comments system doesn't allow pasting of URLs - so have a look at the Guardian Environment section and its article on new (!) pollutants.

    One of the bits still missing from debate is ozone's impact on the insect life that forms a large part of the basis of the ecology's food chain. I'm hoping a focus on this will recruit the very potent pretty-birdies lobby, who've generally been clueless on overarching issues until they see how the birdlife is being hit.

    Also, I've been meaning to post what seems to me the only useful response to your fine post "What's the point?" -
    which is that major permanent losses, let alone total destruction of the ecosphere, are still far from certain,
    - so, IMHO, we fight on because we know it's worth doing and that its a fight we must win, however bitter the losses along the way.

    With warm regards,

    Lewis Cleverdon

  6. Thank you for your comment Lewis. I think you should be able to paste a url so even if it isn't a direct link I could copy it. But yeah, blogger is flawed, for sure!

    I did write one post about insects, don't know if you saw it:

    Going now to look for the Guardian article. I kinda think that we already have major permanent losses to the biosphere, in fact we humans have been driving species to extinction and destroying habitat ever since we could stand up. We'll never know about total destruction of course, because we'll be gone before then.

    Anyway, I agree...fight on!



  7. Unregulated growth in an organism is cancerous.

    After Growth Culture, The New Native Americans


Blog Archive

Follow by Email

My Blog List

Search This Blog