Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Synonymous With Failure

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

~ Prospero, The Tempest

My friend Richard has been saying all along that, sooner or later, young people are going to rise in righteous fury when they figure out that not only is the economy never going to recover from monetary debt, and they will lose all their shiny toys - but the world they inherit will be one of horrible ecological deprivation on a previously unheard of, global scale.  I used to think that was a bit of hyperbole but lately when I look at some of their creative expressions - like the work featured in this post by Tokyo digital painter, YTK Morimoe - I get the distinct feeling that some of them at least are already excruciatingly aware of the perils that will afflict them, and the rest of the species who share this planet with us, for perhaps the rest of time...all courtesy of their parents and grandparents.
I've been spending every day in the hospital since my dad required triple bypass surgery.  Outside I can see it's warm, and for a week the sun has been shining in a crystal clear cerulean sky.  Inside, we are encased in a claustrophobically air-conditioned, plastic bubble.  First we were in the intensive care unit and now the cardiac wing, both with rooms inhabited by mostly very old people, frail and weak and wrinkled, kept exquisitely clean by the fastidious staff.   None of them can have more than a handful of years left to them anyway, and yet massive amounts of money and effort are being expended to keep them alive.
Naturally I'm all in favor of prolonging my dad's life, but the inescapable fact is, such extraordinary medical care (like industrial civilization itself) exists at this miraculous pinnacle of achievement at the expense of the children that are standing, waiting in the wings, for their turn on the stage of life, a performance that will be aborted.  It's utterly amazing to see the amount of disposable petroleum-based products involved in modern hospital equipment.  There are only so many resources on this finite world, and this departing generation has used up far more of them than any previous cohort, and they continue to do so right up to the very end.  There seems to be very little concern about the fact that this is directly reducing the capacity of earth to sustain future generations, a moral travesty of the most immense proportions conceivable.
I guess that the percentage of people who know - truly understand without any false hope - that the trajectory of human history is a seamless juggernaut towards self destruction is tiny compared to the oblivious billions.  There seem to be various camps that only occasionally overlap - the overpopulation crowd, the peak oil crowd, the climate change science crowd, and a few obscure deep ecologists who have the greatest perception of the interlinked nature of all the rest.  Then there are two or three people who think nuclear war will render all those other issues moot.  To further cripple any chance of a unified movement to address the inherent quandaries of overconsumption, the doomsayers are further divided into those who expect a rapid, violent collapse and those who anticipate a gradual decline in living standards mainly affecting the undeveloped world and the poor.
Personally, I think we're headed towards an eco-pocalypse punctuated by such randomly erratic savage wallops that it will become an inescapable realization to everyone that we have fouled our black swan's nest beyond reclamation.  It already would be if people weren't so willfully stupid - it became apparent to me almost as soon as I began to learn about climate change in earnest.  Fred Pearce's book about amplifying feedbacks detected in paleoclimatic episodes, With Speed and Violence, is convincing all by itself.  Interestingly enough, he has since "gone emeritus" and recanted, or at least retreated, from the implications of exponential upheaval.  I think he scared himself.
The way I look at it, there's a race on between peak oil and consumption, climate change, and pollution, to see which destroys industrial civilization first, if a nuclear conflagration doesn't surge out front...and we've got ring-side seats at the finish line. Because I absolutely do think it's going to happen soon enough for anyone reading this to witness. There is so much collapsing already, but people don't recognize it, nor do they realize how swiftly collapse is accelerating. The droughts, floods, melting ice, acidification of the oceans, and forests dying from pollution - especially the ozone killing vegetation, because that has never, ever been a factor in previous climate change - ought to give a clue though.
There's a reason popular culture is obsessed with zombies and doomsday - it's just been plain obvious that we are growing exponentially, and unsustainably, on a finite planet ever since we ran out of continents to conquer and exploit. It's equally clear that after we burn every lump of coal and every drop of oil and gas, the last man standing will burn the last tree. With rare exceptions, it's intrinsic to who we are.
From the extreme weather and the demolition of Arctic summer ice, it's looking more and more like it really won't matter much that all the trees are dying from pollution - although it cannot help but accelerate climate change, and insofar as agricultural crops are also diminished, famine.  But even though the trees are spectacularly mutilated here on the Cape, I'm not going to focus on that today, so if anyone has arrived at Wit's End seeking information about trees and ozone, try a post from last summer...or one of the pages linked at the top.
Instead I'm going to focus on a remark my mother made, which pertained to the Protestant religion (which she knows something about as her grandfather was a preacher) but could just as easily be about any other.  Nana said something along the lines that the primary purpose of their belief system to assure those lucky enough to be at the top range of wealth that they actually deserve to be better off than the majority, the mere fact of their privilege being an indication that they are favored by god because they are superior in some way.
So perhaps for those of us who are doomers, we can take some comfort - it might be the only comfort - in realizing that the human race is predominantly composed of mindless idiots and repulsive moral lepers, who totally deserve to be extirpated from the panoply of species, perhaps the sooner the better since the longer we are here, the more we ravage the rest.

As if any more evidence were needed, take this review in the NYTimes of a movie called Compliance.  The article is titled "Ever Meek, Ever Malleable" with this bright headline:

I tend to think the review is too kind.  Human attributes the author describes as meek, malleable and gullible, I would just call puerile, venal, and easily corruptible.
Ionesco's Rhinoceros
But then, I woke up on the cynical side of the bed this morning.  Here's an excerpt:

It’s an essential parable of human gullibility. How much can people be talked into and how readily will they defer to an authority figure of sufficient craft and cunning? “Compliance” gives chilling answers.

Made on a modest budget and set during one shift at a fictional fast-food restaurant called ChickWich, it imagines that the manager, a dowdy middle-aged woman, gets a call from someone who falsely claims to be a police officer. (I haven’t spoiled much yet but am about to, at least for anyone unfamiliar with the real-life events on which “Compliance” is based.)

The “officer” on the phone tells the manager that he has evidence that a young female employee of hers just stole money from a customer’s purse. Because the cops can’t get to the restaurant for a while, he says, the manager must detain the employee herself in a back room. He instructs her to check the young woman’s pockets and handbag for the stolen money. When that doesn’t turn up anything, he uses a mix of threats and praise to persuade her to do a strip-search. And that’s just the start.

The manager’s boyfriend later assumes the duties of watching over the detained employee. Cajoled and coached by the voice on the phone, he makes her do those jumping jacks, which are meant to dislodge any hidden loot. By the time he leaves the back room, he’s also been persuaded to spank and then sexually assault her.

Preposterous, right? But the details in the movie are more or less consistent with an incident at a McDonald’s in Kentucky in 2004. And that incident was part of a series of hoaxes in which a prank caller manipulated workers at McDonald’s franchises and at other fast-food restaurants into the kind of invasive, abusive behavior depicted in the movie.
History has amply documented the human capacity for cruelty and quickness to exploit vulnerability, and “Compliance” touches on those themes. But it has even more to say about the human capacity for credulousness, along with obedience.

People routinely buy into outlandish claims that calm particular anxieties, fill given needs or affirm preferred worldviews. Religions and wrinkle-cream purveyors alike depend on that. And someone like Todd Akin, the antihero of last week’s news, illustrates it to a T. The notion that a raped woman can miraculously foil and neutralize sperm is a good 10 times crazier than anything in “Compliance,” but it dovetails beautifully with his obvious wish — and the wishes of like-minded extremists — for an abortion prohibition with no exceptions. So he embraces it.

This is what wiki says about the story that inspired the movie (there are many more fascinating details about the events, arrest and trial at the link):

The strip search prank call scam was a series of incidents occurring for roughly a decade before an arrest was made in 2004. These incidents involved a man calling a restaurant or grocery store, claiming to be a police detective, and convincing managers to conduct strip searches of female employees or perform other unusual acts on behalf of the police. The calls were usually placed to fast-food restaurants in small rural towns.

Over 70 such occurrences were reported in 30 US states, until an incident in 2004 in Mount Washington, Kentucky finally led to the arrest and charging of David Stewart, a 37-year-old employee of Corrections Corporation of America, a private-commercial firm contracted by several states to provide corrections officers at private detention facilities. On October 31, 2006, he was acquitted of all charges.  These incidents were the inspiration behind an episode of Law & Order: SVU featuring Robin Williams as the hoaxer, who identified himself as "Detective Milgram", an obvious reference to the famous Milgram experiment that tested obedience to authority. The incidents also inspired an award-winning short film, "Plainview", which played the festival circuit in 2007/2008, and the 2012 film by Craig Zobel entitled "Compliance", which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. 

This is from the wiki entry about the Milgram experiment referred to above:

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of notable social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.  Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, "Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View".

Those experiments involved electric shocks - for an even more horrific example, so vicious it had to be abandoned before completion, check out the Stanford prison experiment, and watch one of many videos about it on youtube, this one an excerpt from The Evilness of Power, in which the professor who devised the experiment observes, "What's interesting is day by day, as the situation degraded, we all adjusted to it.  That is, each day's level of violence and abuse was a platform for the next day."
Also entertaining is a documentary about the making of the film Heaven's Gate, the production of which is a study in hubris, often described as "synonymous with failure".  But it's a grand, quintessentially human colossus of a failure.  In part two Cimino, the director says, of his meticulous and fatal attention to detail, that without strict authenticity,  "...mistakes like that can jeopardize the audience's belief in the picture, and then the story is thrown into jeopardy and the whole movie is thrown into jeopardy."

An extensive investigation published in the Daily Mail describes "...the true cost of green energy" in an article, Pollution on a Disastrous Scale.  It describes the extraction of rare earth metals in China, widely used in the production of "clean energy".  It also inadvertently gives ancillary support to the notion that it is not possible to replace more than a fraction of fossil fuel with wind and solar.
On the outskirts of one of China’s most polluted cities, an old farmer stares despairingly out across an immense lake of bubbling toxic waste covered in black dust. He remembers it as fields of wheat and corn.
Yan Man Jia Hong is a dedicated Communist. At 74, he still believes in his revolutionary heroes, but he despises the young local officials and entrepreneurs who have let this happen.

‘Chairman Mao was a hero and saved us,’ he says. ‘But these people only care about money. They have destroyed our lives.’

Vast fortunes are being amassed here in Inner Mongolia; the region has more than 90 per cent of the world’s legal reserves of rare earth metals, and specifically neodymium, the element needed to make the magnets in the most striking of green energy producers, wind turbines.
Live has uncovered the distinctly dirty truth about the process used to extract neodymium: it has an appalling environmental impact that raises serious questions over the credibility of so-called green technology.
The reality is that, as Britain flaunts its environmental credentials by speckling its coastlines and unspoiled moors and mountains with thousands of wind turbines, it is contributing to a vast man-made lake of poison in northern China. This is the deadly and sinister side of the massively profitable rare-earths industry that the ‘green’ companies profiting from the demand for wind turbines would prefer you knew nothing about.

Hidden out of sight behind smoke-shrouded factory complexes in the city of Baotou, and patrolled by platoons of security guards, lies a five-mile wide ‘tailing’ lake. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy.

This vast, hissing cauldron of chemicals is the dumping ground for seven million tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract its components.
Rusting pipelines meander for miles from factories processing rare earths in Baotou out to the man-made lake where, mixed with water, the foul-smelling radioactive waste from this industrial process is pumped day after day. No signposts and no paved roads lead here, and as we approach security guards shoo us away and tail us. When we finally break through the cordon and climb sand dunes to reach its brim, an apocalyptic sight greets us: a giant, secret toxic dump, made bigger by every wind turbine we build.

The lake instantly assaults your senses. Stand on the black crust for just seconds and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs.

For hours after our visit, my stomach lurched and my head throbbed. We were there for only one hour, but those who live in Mr Yan’s village of Dalahai, and other villages around, breathe in the same poison every day.
Retired farmer Su Bairen, 69, who led us to the lake, says it was initially a novelty – a multi-coloured pond set in farmland as early rare earth factories run by the state-owned Baogang group of companies began work in the Sixties. 

‘At first it was just a hole in the ground,’ he says. ‘When it dried in the winter and summer, it turned into a black crust and children would play on it. Then one or two of them fell through and drowned in the sludge below. Since then, children have stayed away.’

As more factories sprang up, the banks grew higher, the lake grew larger and the stench and fumes grew more overwhelming.

‘It turned into a mountain that towered over us,’ says Mr Su. ‘Anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die.’

People too began to suffer. Dalahai villagers say their teeth began to fall out, their hair turned white at unusually young ages, and they suffered from severe skin and respiratory diseases. Children were born with soft bones and cancer rates rocketed.
Official studies carried out five years ago in Dalahai village confirmed there were unusually high rates of cancer along with high rates of osteoporosis and skin and respiratory diseases. The lake’s radiation levels are ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside, the studies found. 
Since then, maybe because of pressure from the companies operating around the lake, which pump out waste 24 hours a day, the results of ongoing radiation and toxicity tests carried out on the lake have been kept secret and officials have refused to publicly acknowledge health risks to nearby villages.

There are 17 ‘rare earth metals’ – the name doesn’t mean they are necessarily in short supply; it refers to the fact that the metals occur in scattered deposits of minerals, rather than concentrated ores. Rare earth metals usually occur together, and, once mined, have to be separated.

Neodymium is commonly used as part of a Neodymium-Iron-Boron alloy (Nd2Fe14B) which, thanks to its tetragonal crystal structure, is used to make the most powerful magnets in the world. Electric motors and generators rely on the basic principles of electromagnetism, and the stronger the magnets they use, the more efficient they can be. It’s been used in small quantities in common technologies for quite a long time – hi-fi speakers, hard drives and lasers, for example. But only with the rise of alternative energy solutions has neodymium really come to prominence, for use in hybrid cars and wind turbines. A direct-drive permanent-magnet generator for a top capacity wind turbine would use 4,400lb of neodymium-based permanent magnet material.

In the pollution-blighted city of Baotou, most people wear face masks everywhere they go. 
‘You have to wear one otherwise the dust gets into your lungs and poisons you,’ our taxi driver tells us, pulling over so we can buy white cloth masks from a roadside hawker.

Posing as buyers, we visit Baotou Xijun Rare Earth Co Ltd. A large billboard in front of the factory shows an idyllic image of fields of sheep grazing in green fields with wind turbines in the background.
In a smartly appointed boardroom, Vice General Manager Cheng Qing tells us proudly that his company is the fourth biggest producer of rare earth metals in China, processing 30,000 tons a year. He leads us down to a complex of primitive workshops where workers with no protective clothing except for cotton gloves and face masks ladle molten rare earth from furnaces with temperatures of 1,000°C.

The result is 1.5kg bricks of neodymium, packed into blue barrels weighing 250kg each. Its price has more than doubled in the past year – it now costs around £80 per kilogram. So a 1.5kg block would be worth £120 – or more than a fortnight’s wages for the workers handling them. The waste from this highly toxic process ends up being pumped into the lake looming over Dalahai. 
The state-owned Baogang Group, which operates most of the factories in Baotou, claims it invests tens of millions of pounds a year in environmental protection and processes the waste before it is discharged.

According to Du Youlu of Baogang’s safety and environmental protection department, seven million tons of waste a year was discharged into the lake, which is already 100ft high and growing by three feet each year.

In what appeared an attempt to shift responsibility onto China’s national leaders and their close control of the rare earths industry, he added: ‘The tailing is a national resource and China will ultimately decide what will be done with the lake.’
Jamie Choi, an expert on toxics for Greenpeace China, says villagers living near the lake face horrendous health risks from the carcinogenic and radioactive waste. 

‘There’s not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous for the environment. Ores are being extracted by pumping acid into the ground, and then they are processed using more acid and chemicals.

Finally they are dumped into tailing lakes that are often very poorly constructed and maintained. And throughout this process, large amounts of highly toxic acids, heavy metals and other chemicals are emitted into the air that people breathe, and leak into surface and ground water. Villagers rely on this for irrigation of their crops and for drinking water. Whenever we purchase products that contain rare earth metals, we are unknowingly taking part in massive environmental degradation and the destruction of communities.’

The fact that the wind-turbine industry relies on neodymium, which even in legal factories has a catastrophic environmental impact, is an irony Ms Choi acknowledges.

It is a real dilemma for environmentalists who want to see the growth of the industry,’ she says. ‘But we have the responsibility to recognise the environmental destruction that is being caused while making these wind turbines.’
Even Lady Gaga knows that it's more than a mere "dilemma":

"...we as a society are taught politically and religiously that the Apocalypse is coming, it's on its way. But what I'm saying with my show is, ‘We're there right now: this is the Apocalypse.' The fact that we're surrounded by cement and we've already killed everything means the Apocalypse has happened."

"So the idea for me is to give a sense of repose and solace to my fans, that we're here, we did it already, and now it's about accepting where we are and looking more joyfully into the future. And then the Apocalypse is over and the stage becomes very minimal and all that's left is me with a piano, in the middle of the destruction."

This isn't the sort of music that is to my taste, but it expresses my sentiments, so here it is...lyrics below.  Thanks to Dave at Decline of the Empire for the link.

We're setting sail
To the place on the map from which no one has ever returned
Drawn by the promise of the joker and the fool
By the light of the crosses that burn
Drawn by the promise of the women and the lace
And the gold and the cotton and pearls
It's the place where they keep all the darkness you need
You sail away from the light of the world on this trip baby
Pay, you will pay tomorrow
You're gonna pay tomorrow
You will pay tomorrow
Save me, save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no no
Oh, save me, save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no no
I want to run and hide
Right now
Avarice and greed are gonna drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
Drowning in the oceans of history
Travellin' the world, you're in search of no good
But I'm sure you'll build your Sodom like I knew you would
Using all the good people for your galley slaves
As your little boat struggles through the warning waves
But you will pay, you will pay tomorrow
You're gonna pay tomorrow
You gonna pay tomorrow
Save me, save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no
Oh, save me, save me from tomorrow
I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no
Where's it comin' from or where's it goin' to?
It's just a, it's just a ship of fools
All aboard


  1. Nuclear war is the ever present low probablity event. But we know what happens to low probabilities that stretch out over time.

    I think your list pretty well sums up most of the more probable causes. Most collapses are slow globally, but fast locally. I don't even think the (recorded in pollen counts) pre-historic climate change disasters were overnight. The Archdruid thinks that the Bronze age collapsed because the in-crowd had never seen a javelin before.

    A lot of people adopted Christianity because they see it as a guiding light in a hopeless world. African Amercian slaves would be one of many groups in this catagory. That being said, there is certainly a smug self-rightious version out there as well.

  2. @russell1200

    "Every 'small' war pulls the trigger in nuclear roulette. Each of these probabilities, by itself, is small. But taken together over a year's time, they add up to a cumulative probability which is no longer small. Taken together over a century, they make nuclear war virtually inevitable."
    ~Dr. Martin E. Hellman, Stanford University

    Frankly, I see near term nuclear war as the only chance of survival of Life on this planet. It's the radiation therapy necessary to rid the body of the cancerous growth of agricultural civilization.

    He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Shiva.

  3. Excellent posting, with excellent writing, art, and music. (added to earth fail warnings)

    Your writing is so good, please don't stop posting.

    In 2006, the regulars at RealClimate laughed at me when I posted that the Greenland Ice Sheet would be breaking up in 2012. Melting Ice is an exponential process; anyone who has watched river or lake ice melt knows intuitively that it starts slowly but quickly accelerates. So too with all of the processes you mentioned. At first, not much happening, but quickly the changes start accelerating.

    What interesting times we live in.


  4. Ha thanks Catman...I'm glad to know I'm not the only one that gets laughed at at RealClimate!

    I can't see nuclear war as a good thing in any way. The radiation lasts a long time and it mutates every form of life. If it doesn't wipe out every single human, which it probably wouldn't, then the survivors would just carry on in the same vein until they wrecked whatever was left.

    Perhaps a pandemic or two would be better for Earth.

  5. One of my favorite posts yet! Excellent work Gail. Please be strong and keep it up, we need you.

    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light!

  6. Thanks Josh. I think maybe I HAVE to keep writing. I am kind of depressed to tell you the truth, which is worse than being furious and outraged and full of despair.

    The next few days my sister will take over, so I plan some walks in whatever parks I can find where I can take pictures. Maybe even take a ferry to the Vineyard or Nantucket.

    Trees! Ocean!

  7. @Gail,

    I don't really want nuclear war either, but I like running with the horror to get people to think, mainly because nobody ever EVER talks about it, except Carl Sagan and you in this posting.

    Oh, I'd settle for your idea, which parallels the royal gaffer:

    "I must confess that I am tempted to ask for reincarnation as a particularly deadly virus." -Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

    But I also don't see how we're going to evade nuclear war. The weapons are at ready. When the water is all dried up, they'll launch. When the oceans quit making oxygen, they'll launch. When the coastal cities flood, they'll launch. They'll launch for Crusader Jesus and child-sacrificing Jehovallah. If for nothing less than spite at the nations less affected by natural disasters, they'll launch. Humans are still just hairless great apes.

    Any way it goes...

    "I'm dead already." ~Lester Burnham

  8. depressed? I relate. :/

    The sky has been clear blue the past two days and the air cool and breezy like the first days of autumn, normally mid-september here. Its going to be a long winter I'm afraid. I need a long rest.

  9. Excellent post, musings, photos, and relevant scientific information. Our best to Doc. Breathe deeply, and walk quietly; nature still has a healing presence, even in its demise.

  10. Gail, another double murder + suicide rampage, this time in a NJ grocery. I'd guess you've already heard about it, but I'm reminded of the following excerpt from a letter to the editor:

    Welcome to the Dead Zone and its no-future, where only one of the delusions is that life in this industrialized technoculture could ever be green, sustainable or healthy. Time to wake up and smell the gunsmoke.

    THE TERROR OF DAILY LIFE by John Zerzan, Eugene Weekly, February 24, 2012

  11. The film 'Blood in the Mobile' woke me up to one of the aspects of your post - and has meant one more thing I've sworn off. I haven't upgraded my computer as I would have done in the past, mainly due to upgradeophobia; now I have another reason to not fix with something that ain't broke.

    I don't believe that anything can change the course we're on. The proof of that to me is trying to imagine all the sheeple using their collective 'consumer voice' by choosing not to all go out and buy the latest all-singing, all-dancing widget -- at a time when Those Who Tell Us They Know The Answers are still advocating praying to the failed God of Growth.

    It seems clear to me that homo fatuus brutus is on the way out. I just hope we don't take every last living thing on the planet with us.

  12. Oh brother, that's going to be difficult to watch.


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