Monday, July 16, 2012


At first glance I thought this image was a drawing in the style of M.C. Escher.  It took a minute to recognize that real roots have merged into the pattern of the pavers.  Trees possess an almost magical ability to overcome the most intransigent obstacle.  When they are dying off everywhere, it's not because of some natural impediment.  Since I'm an atheist I rather doubt that "only God can make a tree."  I do believe though that only man can kill it.
It was another harrowing week here at Wit's End.  It's never easy for those of us who anticipate various inevitable and converging convulsions, whilst we hurtle and lurch towards our predestined, ignominious demise.  The jangling discordance of lies, propaganda and delusion seems to be increasing in direct proportion to the stampede of catastrophic floods and droughts and heat waves around the world, all realized as more violent than was predicted by climate science consensus.  Just as scientific models warn that lightening too will become more frequent, reports over the weekend of deaths from terrifying strikes on houses, vehicles and trees come apace.  But hey, more research is needed, on that I'm sure we can all agree.
1968 - vibrant May Apples and slender Dogwood
Most calamitous from the perspective of this blog about trees dying from ozone was an errant expedition last Monday that went badly awry.  I had learned there is a small but historically undisturbed hardwood forest, with trees hundreds of years old, right here in New Jersey - in fact quite nearby my home. Oh, rapture!  I could barely contain my excitement to see it turned out to be disastrous.  I was so appalled the first trip, I couldn't take a single photograph, and had to return a few days later to take the pictures for this post.  The two above and below are old pictures of the woods from the sanctuary website.
The rest of the pictures are from last week.  Everywhere you look, carcasses of trees in varying degrees of decay are jumbled on the ground.
The parcel of land long known as Mettler's Woods is described as "uniquely valuable as the best remaining example of old-growth oak forest on the Atlantic seaboard".  Bequeathed to Rutgers University by descendants of the original Dutch settlers, it has never been logged.  According to the deed, random visitors are prohibited, and so I made an appointment to meet a graduate student who would grant me access to the trails. 
One of the trees, which fell down in 1950, was dated to 1627.  The average age as of 2008 was 235 years.  The forest is still dominated by various species of old oaks with much younger maple saplings, and a few mature beech.  The floor is often devoid of any growth, and many trees have toppled, leaving gaping, hot intrusions of sun through the canopy.  Even the standing oaks that still have leaves have corroded bark that is falling off in patches.  The dogwood that once was "continuous" in the understory, 20 to 30 feet in height according to an early inventory, is now almost completely vanished.  I found only four sickly specimens remaining.
I asked my guide why so many trees had fallen.  "That was Hurricane Irene last summer", he said.  But that was a non-event, other than rain, I pointed out.  It wasn't a particularly windy storm by the time it reached New Jersey.  "Right well," he replied, prepared for that: "The bedrock is only a couple of feet under the soil here, so when there is heavy rain the trees tend to fall over".  Wow!  A new excuse - bedrock.  Never mind that many of the fallen trees are so rotted already that they obviously fell before Irene, and others had been dead or dying before they came down.
Besides, a paper assessing the forest in the 1950's by a Rutgers professor, says:

"Below ground there is likewise a certain amount of stratification of underground parts of the plants.  They extend as far as the soil goes, in places 40 inches or more, to the shale rock below.  Some tree roots even grow into the shale to a total depth of about six feet."

Hm.  I would think that roots embedded in shale would make them less likely to fall over, not more!
I asked him whether he thought air pollution might be impacting the trees.  "No", he replied cheerily.  "We're pretty well buffered here".
Buffered?  JEESH, don't universities teach students that air pollution travels enormous distances?  Nowhere in New Jersey is buffered, they don't call it cancer alley for nothing.  Leaving aside the conclusive research published about Asian pollution reaching the US, just consider the recent news stories about smoke from fires in Siberia making for red sunsets and raising ozone to record levels in Canada.  This presents a vicious amplifying feedback seldom (ever?) mentioned in climate literature:  increasing levels of tropospheric ozone kills vegetation and causes trees to turn into kindling, which leads to forest fires, which increases ozone...fancy that.
On an earlier post, someone commented that learning about how ozone is killing trees evoked the Biblical quote:  "And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales".  I guess the scales haven't fallen from my young guide's eyes yet.  In another comment, WizardlyDanny mentioned his reluctance to read my book, because he really would prefer not to know the process by which forests are dying from pollution.
I am morbidly curious about what character or intellectual trait enables some people to realize - not just about the trees but more generally that ecosystems are collapsing and our population is unsustainable - while others resist despite the evidence.  I wonder what word can capture that moment when the scales fall, when the conclusion that humanity is on a collision course with Nature becomes inescapable, swiftly followed with the full horrific import of ecopocalypse, and the implication that we have ourselves engineered our own destruction.
I rejected epiphany, even though it's technically correct, because to me it's inextricably bonded to a joyous connotation.  After some investigation I came to the wonderful concept of Anagnorisis.  It is so obscure that spellcheck doesn't recognize it but then, spellcheck is stupid.  Of course you could always just call it the Duh! moment, but Wiki has an entire page devoted to the complexities of Anagnorisis and I like it much better:
"Ancient Greek: ἀναγνώρισις is a moment in a play or other work when a character makes a critical discovery. Anagnorisis originally meant recognition in its Greek context, not only of a person but also of what that person stood for. It was the hero's sudden awareness of a real situation, the realisation of things as they stood, and finally, the hero's insight into a relationship with an often antagonistic character in Aristotelian tragedy."
"Aristotle was the first writer to discuss the uses of anagnorisis, with peripeteia [a turning point - a sudden reversal dependent on intellect and logic...the most powerful part of a plot in a tragedy along with discovery] caused by it. He considered it the mark of a superior tragedy...".
"Anagnorisis, however, is not limited to classical or Elizabethan sources. Author and lecturer Ivan Pintor Iranzo points out that contemporary auteur M. Night Shyamalan uses similar revelations in The Sixth Sense, in which child psychologist Malcolm Crowe successfully treats a child who is having visions of dead people, only to realize at the close of the film that Crowe himself is dead".
The poet John Clare, who despised man's assault on Nature, wrote these lines from "The Fallen Elm" in the early 19th century:
Old favourite tree, thou'st seen time's changes lower, 
Though change till now did never injure thee; 
For time beheld thee as her sacred dower 
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree. 
Storms came and shook thee many a weary hour, 
Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots have been; 
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower 
Till earth grew iron - still thy leaves were green.
It certainly appears that two hundred years ago, trees withstood high winds and droughts so severe the "earth grew iron" - but not the axe, of course.  And now ozone is the new axe.
It's getting hotter and hotter, isn't it?  Below is the latest graph of CO2, from  The concentration in the atmosphere continues to climb at an accelerating rate.  Think about that.  The difference between June 2010 and June 2011 was an increase of 1.65 ppm, whereas the difference between June 2011 and this June, 2012, was 2.09 ppm.

This is rather interesting because US emissions, for instance, are down 8% since 2006, partially due to the replacement of coal by "natural" gas for generating electricity (never mind what a bad idea that is from the perspective of air pollution, what with fugitive methane, which happens to be an ozone precursor).  Also, the global economic downturn is now including China, where a surplus of coal and oil are clogging up storage.  So why would CO2 concentrations be not only increasing but increasing faster ?  Well, I suppose some might be increasing population but I suspect some of it has to do with vegetation photosynthesizing less, and thus absorbing less CO2.  And so it's going to get much, much hotter very quickly.
Remember what Victoria Wittig wrote in her dissertation, as chronicled in a prior post at Wit's End,
"Modern day concentrations of ground level ozone pollution are decreasing the growth of trees in the northern and temperate mid-latitudes, as shown in a paper publishing today in Global Change Biology. Tree growth, measured in biomass, is already 7% less than the late 1800s, and this is set to increase to a 17% reduction by the end of the century."
"The study is the first statistical summary of individual experimental measurements of how ozone will damage the productivity of trees, including data from 263 peer-reviewed scientific publications...But more importantly, it has the potential to leave more carbon dioxide, ranked as the first strongest greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere by decreasing carbon assimilation in trees...'"
"'This research quantifies the mean response of trees to ozone pollution measured in terms of total tree biomass, and all component parts such as leaf, root and shoot, lost due to ozone pollution,' said Dr. Victoria Wittig, lead author of the study. 'Looking at how ozone pollution affects trees is important because of the indirect impact on carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere which will further enhance global warming, in addition to ozone's already potent direct impact.'"
"'Beyond the consequences for global warming, the study also infers that in mixed forests conifers will be favored over broad-leaved trees, and that the decrease in root size will increase the vulnerability to storms,' said Wittig."
Last sentence of the abstract:  "This implies that a key carbon sink currently offsetting a significant portion of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions could be diminished or lost in the future."

"Diminished or LOST."
An article from New Scientist, as reproduced at ClimateEmergencyNews, describes in terrifying detail the freak extreme weather events and then asks:

There is little doubt that things are going to get even worse. What is especially worrying, though, is that the rise in extremes can't be accounted for solely by the 0.8 °C warming so far. Events like the 2003 and 2010 heatwaves were projected to occur only after much greater warming, towards the end of this century. And while one or two freak events might be dismissed as simple bad luck, there have been suspiciously many of them in the past decade.
...But even in the context of this somewhat more jittery climate, the mega-heatwaves of the last decade stand out as implausibly hellish. Is something else happening to make temperatures soar like this?
Quite possibly, says climate modeller Pier Luigi Vidale at the University of Reading, UK. He thinks plants and soils might explain some of the unprecedented heatwaves. Where land is covered by vegetation, much of the sun's heat is absorbed by plants. They stay cool - and keep the land cool - by sucking up water and letting it evaporate from their leaves. But when the soil dries out, plants close their pores and stop transpiring. "It is the same as if you don't drink any water and stop sweating," says Vidale. When the sun's heat is no longer channelled into evaporating water, it all goes into the land and the air above it. The result is a jump in temperature.

Well, when vegetation is dying off from ozone, it's not transpiring either.  Another vicious feedback loop!
With that let's turn to the latest new links of interest to Ozonists and Ozonistas.  WindSpirit, who has some powerful photographs of trees around Santa Barbara on his blog, shared some amazing sites, such as the US Forest Service International Tree Failure Database  which I expect will be useful once I figure out how to use it, and an article from the Joshua Tree National Tribal Air Association, making the clear connections between the dying trees (which I photographed here) in the park, and ozone.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources webpage which has a handy primer for those yet to be inducted as Ozonists at Wit's End, reproduced below, with a typically anthropocentric title:
"Trees Reduce Air Pollution" 
"Trees and other plants make their own food from carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, water, sunlight and a small amount of soil elements. In the process, they release oxygen (O2) for us to breathe.
  • Help to settle out, trap and hold particle pollutants (dust, ash, pollen and smoke) that can damage human lungs.
  • Absorb CO2 and other dangerous gasses and, in turn, replenish the atmosphere with oxygen.
  • Produce enough oxygen on each acre for 18 people every day.
  • Absorb enough CO2 on each acre, over a year's time, to equal the amount you produce when you drive your car 26,000 miles. Trees remove gaseous pollutants by absorbing them through the pores in the leaf surface. Particulates are trapped and filtered by leaves, stems and twigs, and washed to the ground by rainfall.
Air pollutants injure trees by damaging their foliage and impairing the process of photosynthesis (food making). They also weaken trees making them more susceptible to other health problems such as insects and diseases.
The loss of trees in our urban areas not only intensifies the urban "heat-island" effect from loss of shade and evaporation, but we lose a principal absorber of carbon dioxide and trapper of other air pollutants as well."
There are fires, fires, everywhere, as expected.  The atrocious fires in Colorado eclipsed the fact that many other places are burning.  This picture is from June in North Carolina.
"An uncontained forest fire is currently burning in the Croatan National Forest near New Bern, NC. In what began as a controlled 1,000 acre burn (which is standard procedure), soon got out of control growing into a 2,500 acre blaze on Sunday and nearing 10,000 acres today (Monday)."

The indispensable US Air Quality blog had this entry from July 10:

"The main event right now is due to the large wildfires burning in northern California, Oregon, and Idaho which are producing a light to moderately dense remnant smoke mass that covers much of the region. Very dense smoke extended from northern California across southeast Oregon and into central Idaho...High aerosol optical depth AOD was also detected in the Pacific Northwest region where the big fires are taking place":

Whereas they reported on the 14th:

The fires in Northern Alberta continue to be sources of large amounts of smoke that are now affecting the Canadian east coast...At least three fires are burning in Northern California: one in Placer County, one cluster of fires near Clear Lake and one in the Trinity National Forest."
Here's a roundup of the latest dying trees/lost power stories:

July 11 - Damaging storms in parts of metro Atlanta - AGAIN
"In Smyrna, a large tree invaded Kandy Brown's bedroom. Splintered debris is all that's left of her dresser.  "'I've got to go to work," says Brown. "I don't have anything to wear.'" 
"In Mableton, Jacklyn Fabrizio made a quick trip to the gas station, returning to find two trees where she usually parks her car."
"'I was pretty surprised there was a tree in my house,' Fabrizio told WSB TV "But I was more relieved I wasn't right over there where I usually park.'"
"You would think something like a tree smashing through a house would make a lot of noise, but neighbors near Marchman Drive in Sandy Springs say they didn't hear a thing, as the thunder drowned out the sound of splitting wood.  'We couldn't hear anything beyond the thunder," says neighbor Joel Blackford, who lives just across the street. 'The house was almost cut in two.'" 
"The sound of other crashing trees was plenty loud on Hunting Creek Road.  "I heard a real heavy boom," says Bill Buckley, whose elderly neighbors were trapped for a time by two trees that crashed into their home. 'Sounded like a refrigerator was just dropped on the floor.'"
July 12 - Palo Alto, California:
"Bees in the cavity of a fallen tree gained the upper hand against a City of Palo Alto tree-removal crew on Wednesday afternoon, stinging the entire crew of five.  The Public Works Department employees responded when a large, silver maple with extensive root rot fell down onto Newell Road."
Observe that the tree standing behind the one that fell is on death's door as well!  Perhaps it, too, has "extensive root rot"!
July 6, Odessa, Texas -

"More Trees Dying from Drought Conditions"

"If your tree looked as if it survived last year’s drought, it could only now be obvious that it’s suffering from the lack of moisture."
"'Usually the effects of things that diminish the health of trees are not noticed right away,' said Jeff Floyd, county extension agent-horticulture for Texas AgriLife Extension in Ector County. 
"'Large plants have enough reserves to survive a little while,' Floyd continued. 'Those reserves are being used up right now. The effect of the drought is cumulative.'"  
City Parks and Recreation Director Steve Patton said that around 400 city trees — or 10 percent to 15 percent in the parks system — have been lost due to the continued drought."
"'We had very weak trees from the incredibly hot temperatures last summer,' Patton said. 'It stressed the trees out.'"
"The trees range in age from those planted in the 1950s to newly planted ones and includes species from Afghanistan Pines, Oak and Ash, Patton said.

"Floyd said a tree is dead once its tips or branches contain no moisture and have no flexibility and are relatively easy to snap.  If your tree has stopped growing, that could mean it’s gone dormant, which is a good thing, Floyd said."
"'They go through maintenance mode,' Floyd said. 'They’re still producing food for themselves, and they’re still taking up water, but they’re not actively growing.'" 
"And if your tree’s leaves are browning at the canopy (its top layers) or on the outer branches, don’t give up hope yet. Your tree is still salvageable.  'If you start to see the foliage on the outer edges of the trees dying out and falling off the limbs, that’s one of the first warning signs,' Floyd said. 'It does help conserve some moisture for other parts of the plant, but it’s also a warning sign.'"
May 9, Ontario, Canada - a slightly incoherent column titled "Why the Trees are Dying" by someone named Lauralu indicts road salt:
"I love driving on the scenic roads and highways in Ontario.
After the long winter it is wonderful to see the spring green.
Driving through the solid rock is amazing.
There are amazing lakes and rivers, but its that first freshgreen colour.
Thats so vibrant and full of budding life
And I especially love the long stretches of evergreens."
"But today I was dismayed to find so many trees damaged.
Some of this damage is beyond repair.
The beautiful pines and spruces in particular have been effected.
The injury results from that salt spray that is deposited on the trees.
This occurs when the roads are salted in winter to de-ice them.
And the cars and trucks travelling at high speeds,
sprays the surrounding landscape."
"The salt can also seep into the soil, and the saline damages the roots.
The beautiful green trees turn a rusty orange and lose a lot of needles.
This can also destroy the buds on deciduous trees.
Sometimes only one side of the trees are affected.
And damaged trees are more susceptible to insects and disease.
Some of the trees will recover but many will not.
I hope they find a solution to this destruction of our environment.
The loss of the lovely trees troubles me and others who care."
Meanwhile, back in 2011 emeritus Professor Andrew Goldsworthy blames radiation in a long treatise titled  "Why our urban trees are dying" - apparently failing to notice that they are dying just as swiftly in rural areas, far from the bombardment of radiation:
IntroductionTrees are now dying mysteriously from a variety of diseases in urban areas all over Europe and are also showing abnormal photoperiodic responses. In addition, many have cancer-like growths under the bark (phloem nodules) and the bark may also split so that the underlying tissues become infected. All of these can be explained as being a result of weak radio-frequency radiation from mobile phones, their base stations, WiFi and similar sources of weak non-ionising radiation. But first let us look at how living organisms use electric currents that they generate themselves and which perform vital functions in their normal day-to-day metabolism and growth. We will then go on to see how weak electromagnetic fields can disrupt these and bring about many unwanted biological effects.
He concludes ominously:
"Effects on the shedding of leavesA more obvious effect of radio waves on the biological clock is on the shedding of leaves and fruit in some trees. This is normally a photoperiodic response to the short days of autumn, with the day-length being measured by the biological clock. An increasing number of trees are now failing to shed their leaves and/or fruit at the proper time and they may even remain attached throughout the winter. Oak and beech seem to be particularly badly affected, but it happens with other trees too.  This is an indication that the biological clocks and circadian rhythms of these trees are no longer functioning properly, and it is a reasonable prediction that their immune systems, which are also coupled to the clock, are also not functioning properly. Such trees can be expected to become more susceptible to disease and may soon become unhealthy and die. Similar effects on animals and humans are to be expected."
Not to be outdone, a Colorado woman is also convinced that radiation is responsible for dying aspens, according to a local article from 2010:
"A Lyons area woman with no academic pedigree has published a scientific paper in the International Journal of Forestry Research about the adverse effects of radio waves on aspen seedlings.  Katie Haggerty, who lives north of Steamboat Mountain, found in a preliminary experiment done near her house that aspens shielded from the waves were healthier than those that were not." 
"'I found that the shielded seedlings produced more growth, longer shoots, bigger leaves and more total leaf area. The shielded group produced 60 percent more leaf area and 74 percent more shoot length than a mock-shielded group,' she said."
"She began studying electromagnetic fields 20 years ago. In 2005, when she noticed that her geraniums were stunted, she put the plants in a Faraday cage, an enclosure covered by a metal screen that blocks radio frequency energy, and soon found that the plants had larger leaves and were growing more vigorously."
"'When I heard about the aspen decline in Colorado, I thought it would be a really good test case for this hypothesis, so I thought, 'OK, I'll try them,' Haggerty said. 'And the other thing is that people like aspen trees. They're photogenic and it would get people's attention if I actually found something.'" 
"Thousands of acres of aspen trees in Colorado have died in the past decade, likely due to drought conditions, according to U.S. Forest Service researchers."
Whereas the Times of India disclosed this tragic news, on June 10:
"The legendary banyan tree under which Lord Krishna is believed to have delivered his message of "Bhagavad Gita" to Arjuna is dying a slow death." 
"Considered to be more than 5,000 years old, this tree at Jyotisar near Kurukshetra in Haryana is reportedly the only remaining relic from the time of the Mahabharata. Now, a tussle between the two claimants over the holy place on a puerile issue has left the tree completely neglected - putting it on the verge of extinction." 
"TOI found that the area surrounding the tree has been covered with marble pavement and it can't draw nutrients for its growth. Fancy lights and lamps are fitted with nails on the tree for lighting during night and big bells are tied all over it. The 'holy thread' tied by the visitors has covered most of the lower branches. Tying threads is considered to be wish-fulfilling. Sadly, chunks of branches were also chopped off recently by the caretakers without any expert advice."
So, we can add "neglect" to the reasons trees are dying.
A May 2012 story titled "Trees are dying all over the world, incuding 4,000 year old bristlecones." begins with this pithy quote, with which I can certainly agree:

“The champions are in harm's way. The whole country should
be forested coast to coast with these giant trees, not with the puny, scraggly,
miserable mess we call our forests. We don't realize what we've lost.”

~ David Milarch, Founder and Pres., Champion Tree Project
David Milarch apparently was once told by angels during a near-death experience that he had to live longer in order to save the dying trees, so he has been cloning the oldest and largest specimens based on the theory that they are the fittest survivors.  Aside from the nobility of his purpose the rest of the article is profoundly silly, not so much because of the angels but because it consists of an interview with author Jim Robbins.  He understands that trees are dying, and he understands the implications for climate and water cycling - but he obstinately continues to solely blame climate, insects and disease and never even mentions air pollution, despite the fact that I wrote him in 2010.
Let's tally all the sources of tree death that conveniently never consider pollution, since the list is ever growing.  In addition to the prevalent explanations based on drought from climate change, most common are insects, disease, and fungus, closely followed by old age and growing too closely together.  The perennial favorite amongst conspiracy theorists is chemtrails, closely followed by HAARP, and then other more mundane sorts of radiation.
Recently we've been able to add in marble pavement, salt, root rot, signs of the End Times, neglect, shallow soils above bedrock and now, what has to be my absolute favorite - an apparition of the Virgin Mary, right here in New Jersey!!!  Following is a brilliant post from ClubOrlov.  It's about individual and societal psychosis from peak oil; when Anagnorisis about ecopocalypse becomes unavoidable for almost everyone in the US ofA, we'll see more hysterical scenes like this.

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Peak Oil Oppositional Disorder:  Neurosis or Psychosis?

~ Dmitri Orlov

The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM) has grown to include 297 disorders, but it seems that there is always room for one more. 

Richard Heinberg recently published an article that addresses various recent claims that Peak Oil is no longer a concern. His term for the phenomenon is “peak denial.” It sounds good, and dovetails nicely with Richard's overall theme of “peak everything.” It's a thoughtful piece that does a thorough job of exposing the surreal nature of the optimists' projections, and I have no issues with his argument. I do, however, have an issue with his terminology.
First, since denial does not happen to be a nonrenewable resource with a characterizable depletion profile, its peak, should we detect one, is not particularly meaningful, because it could just as easily peak again tomorrow and then again next century. Second, I suspect that “denial” is no longer the right word to describe the social phenomenon we are currently observing. I think that Ugo Bardi pointed us in the right direction: in his article reacting to George Monbiot's assertion that "We were wrong about peak oil, there is enough to fry us all," Ugo characterized Monbiot's approach to Peak Oil using another word: “delusion.”
If you feel that the distinction between denial and delusion is just a minor, innocuous terminological difference—a gratuitous splitting of hairs on my part—then pardon me while I whip out my Sigmund Freud: in The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis [1924] he wrote the following: “Neurosis does not disavow the reality, it ignores it; psychosis disavows it and tries to replace it.” [p. 185] What psychosis replaces reality with is delusion.
Let's take this one step at a time. Denial is where you know something full well (e.g., that there is a finite amount of economically recoverable oil and that we have already burned through about half of it) but refuse to consider it as important. Denial is symptomatic of neurosis. Neurotics are not considered particularly dangerous; they can be quite annoying, and they can sometimes pose a threat to themselves, but they are, in general, not considered to pose a threat to society. They can also be quite charming: Woody Allen parlayed his neuroses into a successful acting/directing career. (In German the title of his film Annie Hallis Stadtneurotiker—“urban neurotic.”)
Delusion, on the other hand, is symptomatic of psychosis. Now, when was the last you ran across a charming, urbane, popular, successful psychotic? Back to Freud: old Sigmund distinguishes two types of thinking: there is secondary process thinking—the good kind—the domain of the well-adjusted, socialized self, grounded in consensual reality, reasonableness, rationality and logic. And then there is primary, or archaic process thinking—the bad kind—the product of obsession, compulsion, hallucination and... here we go... delusion. The path that leads from neurosis to psychosis is a regression toward a more primitive, archaic, infantile self. Take your typical neurotic (refuses to face Peak Oil, spouts gibberish about it when pressed), put that neurotic through a terrible, ego-destroying crisis, and that individual may regress and lapse into psychosis.
What happens to individuals also happens to entire societies. Take a neurotic Peak Oil-denying industrial civilization, put it through a terrible global financial crisis, tell it that economic growth is over forever, and what you get a psychotic, delusional industrial civilization. In Civilization and its Discontents [1930] Freud wrote of the capacity of delusions to propel an entire culture toward disintegration in a maelstrom of violence, and in Constructions in Analysis [1937] he pointed out that once delusional thinking permeates an entire culture, including its religion and its politics, that culture becomes inaccessible to logical argument. Delusion is a sort of tyranny—internal in the case of a sick individual, external in the case of a sick culture—that traps reality within specific images, precluding any possibility of self-understanding or objectivity.
This is a rather important point to take on board for those who continue to patiently argue the case for Peak Oil: to a psychotic, anyone who disagrees with her is automatically the enemy, and, since psychotics create their own reality, it is just a tiny step for her to then declare that the Peak Oil movement actually causedPeak Oil and is therefore to blame. It is quite typical for a psychotic to project delusions onto others in an effort to make them act as parts of her own enraged, uncontrollable self, because identifying the threat as her own self leads to an uncontrollable panic.
This type of projection is a psychotic's main means of exercising power over others. Now, let's keep in mind that confronting a delusional mob is not the same as confronting a delusional patient in a psych ward, where there is a red panic button on the wall that you can push at any time, and nurses will rush in to restrain and sedate the patient. We have to be careful: when a psychotic society acts out, there is no-one to restrain it.
Let us look at the progression. The chant “Drill, baby drill!” at Sarah Palin's political rallies was a denialist, neurotic response to Peak Oil—an obsessive-compulsive reaction to the news that oil is running out. Neurotics often develop rituals which, though ineffectual in any practical sense, comfort them and temporarily reduce their level of anxiety. A typical example is compulsive hand-washing in an OCD-sufferer. And indeed we went on to see a ridiculous amount of drilling activity, most of it not particularly productive.
But then something quite different came along: subsequent pronouncements that the US is about to become energy-independent are of an entirely different nature. These are born of delusions of omnipotence which are very common in psychotic patients. Also, psychotic obsessions often have physical mutilation as their objective, using the physical body as a surface on which to express anxiety and dread. It is something less than a metaphor to say that for a society, its body is the land on which it lives. Is fracking (hydraulic fracturing), which is ineffectual in any practical sense, but causes ghastly environmental and financial damage, not just such a psychotic self-mutilation?
Here is another instance of the same progression: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 initially produced a largely neurotic response. One instance of it is what's often been described as “security theater” carried out by the Transportation Safety Administration at airports in the US. The screening system is sufficiently porous for anyone who cares to do so to smuggle through a weapon and even a bomb, but everyone is forced to submit to a humiliating charade with sexual overtones (groping). The entire process is an institutionalized obsessive-compulsive coping mechanism: an attempt to control the society's anxiety level through nonsensical rituals.
But a few years later a very different behavior evolved: endless “surgical” drone aircraft strikes in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan thought to be controlled by the Taleban. The idea is to exterminate the enemy through physical assassination. From a rational perspective the strategy is nonsense: the Taleban, who are considered the enemy, are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns; the Pashtun code of honor, Pashtunwali, requires family members to avenge all murders (although payment of restitution is also acceptable); there are some 40 million Pashtuns.
Every time a drone kills a Pashtun, another Pashtun has to join the Taleban and go try and kill an American. If the goal is to minimize American deaths, then the winning strategy is obvious: Americans should stop killing Pashtuns. But if your country has shifted gears from neurosis to psychosis, then rational arguments no longer apply because in your own mind you are now omnipotent and must surgically excise the Other, or face uncontrollable panic.
One more symptom: the psychotic condition is often accompanied by a sense of unlimited entitlement, and, surely enough, one thing I consistently hear from Americans is: “All we have to do is keep printing dollars because nobody can stop us.”
Freud was certainly not the first to spot the connection between the psychotic self and the psychotic society. Plato, in Book 9 ofThe Republic, drew the connection between the tyrannical state and the tyrannical self, the two existing in a reciprocal relationship, one reinforcing the other in a symbiotic psychosis. Psychotic delusion on the personal level becomes ideology at the group level; both possess the power to annihilate the Other—be it the foreigner or the domestic subversive. “We communicate with the psychotic part of our self by locating that communication in our politics. We only hide or repress or split off the inaccessible side of who we are and project outward, as collective phantasies, toxic emotions that take shape in political programs, acts and ideologies.” [James M. Glass, Psychosis and Power, 1995, p. 169]
Greek tragedy depicted psychosis as commentary on public life. And this, I think, is as it should be: drama, literature and religion all offer powerful ways to channel our unconscious urges and psychotic impulses, keeping our communal self from disintegrating even during the worst crisis imaginable. It is better to face psychosis as part of a group, because an individual disintegrating self is painful even to watch: “if such persons are not howling, weeping, cutting themselves with whatever they can get their hands on, smearing feces on the wall, mumbling incoherently, or shouting profanities, they lie in bed staring at the ceiling... Disintegrating selves possess no sense of community, reciprocity or reality as a continuing historical experience and little, if any, self-respect or dignity.” [ibid., p. 155]
According to Dr. Glass, a culture of psychosis is incompatible with democracy: “A personal world of limitation, respect, shared understandings, regard for the body, sensitivity to others, implies a political world of tolerance, respect for rights, and acknowledgement of the right of the other to live without domination. [Psychosis], however, provokes domination and destruction; it is tragic, like the madness of an Oedipus at Colonus or the torment of Medea, reflecting the tragedy not only of her family but of an entire society and culture.” [ibid., p. 130]
Indeed, the parallels between psychosis and tyranny almost draw themselves. Take this famous utterance by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda: “Our task here is surgical... drastic incisions, or some day Europe will perish of the Jewish disease.” How different is that from a certain schizophrenic patient described by Dr. Glass who kept insisting that his legs are poisoning his body and must be amputated, and that, once they are gone, he is sure that he will be able to live and remain healthy for a trillion years? (Would that be his personal trillion-year Reich, I wonder?)
A society's ability to remain amenable to reason, to negotiate, to respect differences and so on rests on a fragile foundation that is made up of illusions such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or “government by, of and for the people,” or “liberty and justice for all,” or “a system of checks and balances” and so forth. “Illusion is what binds democratic communities together; delusion destroys democratic process and function.” [ibid., p. 184] Most of these, while not strictly counterfactual, are not meant as statements of fact and are indefensible as propositions but are accepted on faith. (“Checks and balances” is total fake; the US Supreme Court upholds all federal laws.)
The biggest illusion of all is called “The American Dream”: “Is it still real?” a recent copy of Time Magazine asks right on its cover. Is believing in a dream not the essence of illusion? When illusions break down, they are replaced with delusions. “The result, in both the self and the community, is tragedy.” [ibid., p. 176] Loss of the American Dream may well lead the individual citizen to loss of identity, ego disintegration, psychotic rage and compulsive self-mutilation and the nation to an explosion of racism, jingoism, fanaticism, xenophobia, scapegoating, witch-hunts... in short, to tyranny.

And this brings us to the question of political leadership. Political leaders maintain or create our foundational illusions, mainly by indulging our phantasies. These phantasies are of two kinds: conscious and unconscious, and it is the unconscious ones that are the more politically potent. Societies tend to select leaders that represent them, and psychologically sick societies—the ones whose unconscious phantasies happen to be on fire—tend to select the sickest individuals to represent their particular disorder.
Free-market capitalism, with its Hobbesian justification of the laws of the marketplace, with its competitive, exclusionary, brutal, possessive individualism, elevates pathological narcissism, granting it the status undisputed, unavoidable economic reality. In doing so, it selects for sociopaths as leaders: individuals who lack empathy or conscience. There seems to be a certain wiring problem with their brains: you can shock them repeatedly, and they still won't cringe when you tell them that you are about to shock them again. They seem to lack both emotions and emotional memory, but are often excited by the suffering of others. “The higher you go up the ladder, the greater the number of sociopaths you'll find there,” says Martha Stout of Harvard Medical School, author of The Psychopath Next Door.
Indeed, Robert Hare, author of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, has estimated that the prevalence of sociopaths among America's CEOs is much higher than in the general population, higher even than among the prison population. The ones who are not sociopaths do their best to emulate the ones who are, but rarely do as well, because their attempts to maximize shareholder value are often hampered by inconvenient and awkward feelings of sympathy, pity, remorse and dread. (The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used interchangeably and mean the same thing, but if you look at the checklist you will realize that those who score high on it are quite different from your garden-variety asshole.)
Americans should feel lucky to be ruled by sociopaths; being ruled by a psychotic is much worse. Psychotic societies select for leaders such as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot; the effect is a society that is effectively decapitated. A political body can continue to function, for a time, with its head amputated. Its army and bureaucracy intact, it gallops around as a headless horseman, driven to destroy by primitive, atavistic impulses. The tremendous power of subconscious phantasies harnessed in the service of state power by a psychotic leader infects all of surrounding reality even while the state apparatus remains perfectly rational: law and order in the service of stark raving madness.
Psychotic individuals are quite aggressively medicated, and antipsychotics are already the most prescribed class of medications in the U.S. Many people say that antipsychotics are overprescribed—especially to children and to the elderly—in an effort to control them, and this is probably true: the sale of psychiatric medications is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world, and antipsychotics are the current cash cow for pharmaceutical companies now that the patents on many antidepressants are expiring.
Just as it has with the antidepressants and depression, it will likely turn out that the antipsychotics are similarly ineffective in treating psychosis and are really just sedatives with many nasty side-effects. Be that as it may; they are prescribed, and the reason they are prescribed, I would venture to guess, is because millions of people in the US, young and old, exhibit symptoms of psychosis and require sedation.
I would further venture to guess that the prevalence of psychotic symptoms in the American population is itself a symptom—of the psychosis of American society as a whole. If treating psychotic individuals is a difficult problem but is the focus of a huge and profitable industry, the treatment of the spreading psychosis of American society is not even recognized as a problem.

If you thought that Peak Oil is about energy—think again. It may well turn out to be about delusion, resulting, personally, in ego-death and nationally—in psychotic tyranny.


  1. hi Gail,
    when I was in my twenties, I used to go to the beautician and she would start a machine pushing ozone in my face as part of her so-called "treatment". I remember very well the particular smell of the air coming from that machine. This is the smell in the city today. Strong. It's the first time it is strong enough for me to make an immediate connection.
    Very difficult to breathe.

    I am just coming back from the apartment of a woman I recently met with who I make music (10 minutes walk from my home). The trees on her street are in particularly late stage, bark falling, not half their leaves, all of them. Even the one in her window! I talked about it and she said: I don't know. Is this just your opinion or is there any scientific base to your observations? I said: don't you see? Do you want to take a walk with me? Which she refused.
    No, she does not see. No agnarorisis yet. and no, I will not go back, What's the use? I will die in the city where I was born, without trees, birds, stars,...

  2. That is quite curious, I never heard of that, although I've read that ozone is used to kill insects - like in grain towers, and to kill the odor of marijuana so it won't be detected by police. It's supposed to be something you can smell after lightening, when it is brought to the surface layer of the atmosphere from the stratosphere where is naturally occurs. But I have never smelled it, myself.

  3. Whenever there is an electrical spark in the air, one that you could see, ozone is produced. Electric motors, the kind with brushes and a commutator, lightning, and live, fallen power lines, are three common strong sources.

    If you are not in denial about dying trees and climate change, unlike most of America, it must be because you don't watch enough TV.


  4. You can readily smell ozone around most older electrical equipment. Lightning makes ozone.

    Between drought and dying vegetation and a whiff of forest fire in the distance nothing smells right out of doors anymore.

  5. Arc welding also produces ozone, but the smell of burning metal is added to the smell of ozone.

    "nothing smells right out of doors anymore."

    I've noticed that around my house the woods smell a lot like a garden store that sells quantities of nitrogen fertilizer and other gardening chemicals. This is the first year for that, although the woods have seemed to be dying for at least ten years.

  6. "Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armory of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself."

    James Allen

  7. I am seeing three alarming trends in science. I am no longer confident that science, in any form, will survive industrial collapse.

    The first, and least alarming has long been with us, what is new is the intensity: And that trend is the notion that if something is not already known or accounted for in theory, then it does not exist. Observations no longer signify. Obviously, at the outset of modern science, scientists held the opposite of this view, else modern science never would have gotten started. But now we are in what looks like the late stages of incipient decay, and unplanned for or unwelcome knowledge is excluded or forbidden.

    The second trend is more alarming, and appears as a pervasive sloppiness. In the pursuit of grants and positions, truth just doesn't matter--or rather--comes second. Good research is still possible, but only if it does not interfere with funding. Some of the scientists you cite seem pretty indifferent to the truth as such, they seem to just want to sound smart and talk a good game to their funding agencies.

    The third trend is truly new, barely a decade old, and is the most alarming: False science. Bogus scientists are hired by bogus research institutes which publish fake results in bogus journals--all funded by large corporations to cover up the truth in order to profit. Unfortunately, most people cannot tell the difference (having never learned science in the first place) and most public figures just don't care (the politicians being already bought by the same corporations.)

    I don't have any solutions to offer: I think there are none. Learning to do your own research--as you have done--is very important, but probably will not overthrow the general trend.

    The accelerating rate of CO2 emissions is not something Peak Oil Doomers were counting on, and indeed we were rather hoping that industrial decline would mitigate the trend toward greater climate change. But in truth, this need not have been a surprise, as the problem of energy return on energy invested (EROEI) was always a part of the Peak Oil analysis. In the mid-1950s, when EROEI was on the order of 100 to 1, energy was practically free, while now, as we see EROEIs of about 3 to 1, it means about a third of our carbon load is generated merely extracting the oil, before we do anything with the oil we have extracted. Our economy will have to fall much, much farther than it has done to have any compensating impact(a 30% economic decline is merely standing still on emissions), and it is beginning to look doubtful that compensation will happen.

    Of course, if CO2 emissions are rising, ground-level O3 pollution is rising right along with them.

    Thank you for reporting on the old-growth forest in New Jersey. A clear and blatant indicator indeed!


  8. Thanks everyone for your comments! Gaianne, I don't know if you saw this:

    But when the UCS says science is corrupt, there must be something really wrong!

    Also, it would appear that people are going to burn everything on the planet. When we run out of oil, coal and gas we'll burn algae, corn and every last tree. I was furious to see the the NRDC has a plan to "safely regulate" fracking. Climate Progress even ran an approving story about it yesterday.

    To me, that's definitive.


  9. I still look at some of the pictures and think "no wonder the general public doesn't notice." Then I look at other pictures and think "Wow even the average person would notice if all the trees looked like that." Then I realize if all the trees looked like that we'd all be dead.

  10. Ha, well at the rate we're going, all the trees WILL look like that...and then, yeah, we'll be dead. I can't count how many people have said to me, when I point out an obviously dying tree, "But, it still has leaves!"

  11. That's the thing. Until all the trees look like that the average person is not going to notice. But by then it will be too late It's sort of a paradox. A scene like this can still be passed off as perfectly normal in the minds of most :

  12. Yeah, I debated whether to put that one in but I try not to cherrypick. It doesn't rest on one photograph anyway, which is why I take so many. And I encourage people to go out an look for themselves.

    Once you recognize the long list of symptoms - the cracked bark, the leaves that are losing their normal color or even shriveling up, the holes and the cankers - you would have to work hard to NOT see how many trees exhibit signs of decline.

    Besides, there are plenty of scientific studies by now that verify forests are dying all around the world. (If anyone wants links, I've got them.) The question is, why. Is it a bunch of unrelated, disparate stressors that just happened to all start up in the past few years...everywhere? Or is there a global influence? Given that there is also mountains of research documenting the damage done to plants by ozone, it really seems a no-brainer.

    It's far more likely that, as in so many other delusional pursuits, people are just ignoring the obvious.


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