Sunday, October 14, 2012

Torches of Freedom

Upon seeing my last post about the missing autumn foliage, commenter John left a link to a current television news series from WCAX, "Chasing Vermont's Changing Leaves", which was nothing less than surreal.  I have more pleasing photographs that will come later in this post, but first, given the dramatic difference in this year's fleeting fall season, I feel a bit frantic and obligated to do some foliage forensics while there is still some left.  Can we just start with a picture from the same news organization taken October 20, 2007 in Ferrisburg, Vermont, just to put things in context:
Throughout the three-part show, the intrepid reporter, Sharon, found herself in the awkward position of trying to explain the lack of color she had been assigned to report about.  In the first segment she says (cautiously choosing her words):  "In fact we began to notice all along the route - through Coventry, Orleans and into Barton - that there are the occasional pops of bright color, but overall the bright colors aren't yet as bright as we hoped they'd be."  And no wonder.  The leaves have fallen off already, without turning color as they should.
She was indeed "chasing" the changing leaves, and apologetically evaded the fact that she couldn't find any in intriguing ways, like filming pumpkins, rocks and buildings instead.  A nervous state park employee claimed that there was more color at higher elevations because the temperature was "moderated" by the river - but these waterfront trees aren't turning color later - they are already turning brown and dropping leaves.
By the third and final installment, in desperation, she actually managed to proclaim this season "glorious" in the context of this park scene.  Um, I call it horrifying and frightening, not least because it is presented with such delusion.  Of course she can hardly be honest about it, because that would discourage the tourists, and she would be pilloried by the industry.
Sharon began the final segment with footage at the historic Constitution House.  Below is a stock photo featured on a travel magazine site, that dates from 2007, or before:
Next is a photo posted to a blog that was taken November 4, 2009, one year after I noticed a rapid decline in tree health.  The pine tree that was behind the house is gone.  So, too, is the genuinely glorious orange.
Ready?  Here's the screen shot from the video taken this year, on October 9.  Almost a month earlier than the picture above in 2009, and the maple leaves are already almost just as much gone even though there had yet to be a hard frost, as evidenced by the lilacs that still have green leaves.
Let's do another comparison.  This is the view of downtown Windsor shown in the video, with the First Presbyterian Church.
 Look at the difference in photos from earlier years on Flickr.  The first is an undated postcard.
All three others were taken by the same photographer on October 9, 2008, exactly the same day of the month as the video.
More leaves are still green, fewer have changed color.  The crowns are still lush and dense; the branches are not visible.
 Surely, the difference in hue and intensity of color speaks for itself!
Here's one more shot from the video:
 Poor Sharon buys herself a "cream" from Dari Joy.  Do we see dead leaves??
The geraniums are further evidence that there has not been a damaging frost.  There is no explanation for leaves to be falling off prematurely, without ever turning color, other than air pollution, particularly because ALL species of trees have exactly the same deficiency, so it's not any particular biotic blight.
It gets crazier!  On November 14, 2009, the same blogger who took the Constitution House picture also posted this photo of the American Precision Museum (which looks like a pretty cool place to visit):
Below is the screenshot from the television report.  Notice that even though the photo above was taken more than a month later in the season, the trees still retain more colorful leaves than the scene today, which is supposed to be at peak - that's why the reporter was there filming!
Closeup shots of the leaves reveal why.  The videos are worth watching just to see how perplexed Sharon is, but to save you time, following are the only lame comments she could muster to accompany these shots - with my translation in blue.
"It's an interesting season."  I can't honestly say it's beautiful...I'll call it interesting...
"Close to the river the foliage isn't at peak yet..." there is no color here at all other than dull green and brown.
"...while not far away in the hillsides and mountains many of the leaves are already down." there's no room between "not peak" and "already down"!!

I'm not going to spend much time in this post explaining that the fall color is gone because trees are dying from tropospheric ozone.  If that is a novel notion, please follow links in Spill the Scarlet Rain...instead, I'm going to post pictures from Nantucket which I took last Monday and Tuesday, the 8th and 9th.  I had always wanted to go there, but after I learned more about the rise and collapse of the whaling industry, with its deeply allegorical connections to our present circumstances, I decided I absolutely had to make a detour on the ferry to Mr. Melville's island after leaving my parents' home on Cape Cod.
I fell in love.
All my life I have hated modernity - and have ridiculed and reviled the American urge for what I started calling the "easy access, low maintenance" lifestyle long ago when I lived in California.
It's almost possible, on Nantucket, to be transported back to a past when people made things by hand, and Nature was considered unlimited and bounteous.  Except for the cars and electric wires, the old town looks much like it did before petroleum started its reign.
A fanatical historic commission sees to it that all construction and renovation is strictly regulated.  There isn't a traffic light on the entire island.
I stayed one night, at the Jared Coffin House, an inn that was originally the home of a whaling captain.
This is the view from the granite stoop.
A travel blog entry from 2011 has this undated photo of the inn, with a large tree on the right side of the photo:
Don't blink!  It's gone now.  You can just see the skinny trunk of its replacement in the picture I took, last week.
I had a little room with a tiny bed, which suited me perfectly.
It was intermittently cloudy and drizzly, but warm enough that I didn't mind getting damp.
The town is much bigger and crowded with buildings than I expected, although I shouldn't have been surprised - it was a bustling port in its heyday, as depicted in this painting from the Whaling Museum.
After petroleum usurped the market, once-prosperous Nantucket would have sunk into impoverished oblivion, but it was rescued when the tourist industry discovered its long beaches and cool, salty summer breezes.  It is now a very exclusive, very expensive resort, exquisitely maintained.
That doesn't insulate it from air pollution, however.  Even as we docked I could see from the deck that the trees are in abysmal condition.
Whether young or old, their leaves are spotted with necrotic tissue, they are shriveling, and lichen covers the branches and trunks.
Like everywhere else, the trees are all dying - their leaves are all damaged and falling off early, there's no fall color such as you'd expect.
There is absolutely no other reason that the leaves on the island should be so uniformly damaged.  It was hot over the summer, and dry, but not enough to explain why, when tender annuals are still alive (no frost yet!), the oldest leaves are necrotic.
Plants like coleus and begonia cannot tolerate even a light frost.
And yet they are still growing and blooming.
They call Nantucket The Grey Lady, because except for grandfathered buildings, every house must be sided with cedar shakes.
Only certain muted colors are approved to paint the doors, trim and the front clapboards.
In that sense it is like Germany...very well preserved, but at the price of rigid conformity.
Perhaps if you don't adhere to rules, they take you to the town square and flog you, like in the old days.
Trees don't get this dead from one hot summer, even if it breaks records.  It takes several years for them to die.
There were more leaves on the ground than on the branches - far too early in October.
I was happy to see that some of the windowbox plants were doing well.
I think it is possible to offset some of the effects of ozone with devoted applications of fertilizer and careful monitoring of pests and disease - and of course regular watering.
And trees and shrubs suffer cumulative damage, unlike annuals that are planted anew every season.
Of course some, like these petunias, look bedraggled, but I didn't want to take pictures of them.
So any more windowbox photos in this post will be pretty.  The trees are bad enough.
Like Southampton, Nantucket is famous for the privet hedges that shield the gardens from prying eyes.
They are steadily losing density, and not performing their designated job as they become transparent.
I found more samples of albino leaves, which occur also on Cape Cod and in New Jersey.
I would imagine such leaves are not photosynthesizing properly.
The lichen is arguably more rampant here than anywhere I've seen, covering even railings, roofs and benches.
In a post about lichen last fall (which has a couple of terrific charts and a video), I had linked to a report from the 2011 Issues in Ecology magazine, but I'll reproduce some of it again as it pertains to lichens, since there are just so many of them on the island.
"Biodiversity of plant communities is sensitive to N added by air pollution. Nitrogen-loving species are often favored and increase in prominence as ecosystem nitrogen availability increases."
"Forests and woodlands in many regions of the world show large changes in epiphytic lichen communities in response to chronic atmospheric nitrogen deposition. These lichen community impacts occur at nitrogen pollution thresholds as low as 3-6 kg/ha/yr."
The Table 3 list specifies:  "Lichen community change from oligotrophic [Oligotrophs are characterized by slow growth, low rates of metabolism, and generally low population density] and to eutrophic species dominance".
"Adding nitrogen to forests whose growth is typically limited by its availability may appear desirable, possibly increasing forest growth and timber production, but it can also have adverse effects such as increased soil acidification, biodiversity impacts, predisposition to insect infestations, and effects on beneficial root fungi called mycorrhizae."
"As atmospheric nitrogen deposition onto forests and other ecosystems increases, the enhanced availability of nitrogen can lead to chemical and biological changes collectively called 'nitrogen saturation.' As nitrogen deposition from air pollution accumulates in an ecosystem, a progression of effects can occur as levels of biologically available nitrogen increase."
Besides, wasn't I just talking about crossing the tipping point?   I have an important announcement to make!  This fall, we have passed B1:

"Figure 1. Conceptual representation of how ecological and policy thresholds may be developed. Both lines show estimates of ecosystem degradation as pollutants increase in ecosystems. Line
“A” represents a gradual decline in ecosystem condition, where managers, policy makers, and
regulators can set policy thresholds at any number of different points depending on goals (for example, A1, at beginning of decline or A2, at midpoint of decline). Line “B” represents a rapid decline in ecosystem condition, with a clearly identified, ecological threshold at which a tipping
point occurs (B1)."

See, the managers, policy makers, and regulators - not to mention the scientists, foresters, and other researchers - failed to set policy during the gradual decline along line A, and so we now find ourselves on a precipitous descent along line B, without any way to claw our way back up.

The tree in front of the house below has far more lichen growing on it than leaves - the now dominent, eutrophic, fast-growing kind.
Two types have come to predominate - the green shield, which is the flat growth with petal-like concentric circles, and the very fuzzy, hairy kind, which is what covers these branches.  Also there is a bright acid yellow, but not as frequently.
Often they appear together.  Always they presage the death of the tree.
This is the fence railing that runs behind the tree.
Despite such macabre portents, I was enchanted by the winding streets paved with the original cobblestones.
The serenity of the old brick homes is calming; they seem so permanent and impervious to the things I worry about  - the ravages of time, extreme weather, and roving zombies.
I always wanted a little boxwood maze!
Although not all the boxwood is thriving.
There are many eateries to choose from (if you can afford them).
I had a most delicious lobster roll. 
 A very very delicious lobster roll.
A delicious, delicious lobster roll.
Since my stay was so limited I decided to try the island bus tour, for $20.  Our driver was most entertaining and full of many amusing anecdotes about the history and current denizens.  We drove by the oldest house, the only structure surviving from the original settlement, built in 1686.
There is a ridiculously huge old apple tree nearby.
The sturdy Nantucket Windmill was constructed in 1746 with timbers salvaged from shipwrecks.  Eight one-foot posts frame the octagonal shape, joined by dovetails and held with wooden pegs.
This is the ocean view from one of the many swank estates we passed.  See how dull the grass is, along the ocean?
I can remember when it was a rich and glowing gold, like in this old painting in a shop window.
Handblown glass flasks of whale oil with its magic properties can be seen in the museum.
There was a thriving candle business which used the remainders of oil processing.
A 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale that washed ashore on New Year's Day in 1998 dwarfs the boat.
There are lots of portraits of the ferocious Quakers.
I have been thinking quite a bit about the crime of whaling.  The methodical, megalomaniacal pursuit of them by ships from that little port all the way to Japan seems particularly heinous.
For a time, it brought great wealth.
This 19th century Fresnel Lens was used in the Sankaty Head lighthouse.
This is known as the Town Clock.
There is an extensive exhibit of scrimshaw whale teeth and other items made from whalebone.
Lightship baskets are a traditional craft still made and sold in many shops.
I went to the rooftop observation deck.  The potted topiaries are miserable.
Looking below gives a bird's eye view of the peculiar growth pattern seen on many trees and shrubs.
All around the town, the tree canopy was losing leaves prematurely.
Any color derives from chlorotic yellowing, and mostly it looks rusty.
The fiery scarlets and oranges anticipated in the fall are non-existent.
I stopped in at the peaceful, elegant Atheneum, which was rebuilt in 1847, following the Great Fire.
...but most of the time I spent walking outside.  There are some monumental trees, lurching and bursting from the old brick and slate sidewalks.
I just love it when people say trees are dying in towns or parking lots because they're surrounded by impervious surfaces.  How did they get so big in the first place if that's the problem?  Trees defy brick, stone and pavement.
And yet now I fear for all the lovely old houses - those trees are ready to smash them next time there is a storm with high winds.
Here's a Civil War monument in the middle of an obscure intersection.
A car of choice.
There were workers everywhere, now that the owners have left - plumbing and heating, landscapers, painters, and this fellow, scraping shakes off with a sort of giant chisel.  Because of the salt they have to be replaced every five years - a hefty proposition!
People name their houses with cute bad puns, like this one "Thistle Dew".  Get it?
Some of these pictures I obtained by peering into private courtyards, peeking over fences, and
...and sneaking shamelessly into alleys to capture the view from the backyard, all to share with my dear readers at Wit's End!
Ozone is no respecter of class.
Nantucket is renowned for trellised roses but most of them were leafless - this arched gate was a rarity.
Since I became a pauper and can't afford to buy anything, fashion and style have lost much of their allure.  But I still admire the artifice of a carefully planned window display, and the shopping in Nantucket rivals Baden-Baden, which is probably the swishest place I've been - unless it's Venice.
I had great fun taking pictures of the windows with reflections of trees, passing cars, and sometimes even my camera.
These sweet shadowboxes of shells are known as Nantucket Sailor's Valentines.
In the window of a gallery there were photographs of the Beetles at a hotel in Paris in 1964, fetching thousands of dollars.
Let's turn to more news of dying trees, which continues to roll in relentlessly.
Science Friday on NPR reported in September on the continuing destruction of the hemlock forests by the woolly adelgid.
Of course, they neglected to mention that ozone exposure predisposes the trees to attack, which has been known since experiments in the '90's, according to "An Appalachian Tragedy" - nor did they mention that the background level of ozone is constantly increasing.
The cascading effects of hemlock death are dire for all the other dependent species in a predominately hemlock ecosystem:  "Hemlocks, in buffering the forest from temperature extremes, prevent streams from drying up in summer and from freezing solid in winter, which ensures a more or less constant flow of water and reliable habitat for aquatic species. Furthermore, since the soil of hemlock forests has only low levels of nutrients such as nitrogen and calcium, there is very little leaching of nutrients into the water. As a result, water quality is high and aquatic life is abundant in an intact hemlock ecosystem."
Meanwhile, "Die-Back Kills Off 90% of Denmark's Ash Trees.  Britain Faces a Similar Threat".  I'm going to paste the entire article, because it's such a priceless example of utter blindness.
A killer fungus has attacked ash trees across northern and central Europe, prompting pleas for the UK to ban sapling imports.  But it may already be too late.
Deep in the forest of Gribskov, some of the leaves are starting to flush with their autumnal colours. It makes the stand of blighted trees all the more obvious.
Seven or eight 20m-high sticks, stripped of their greenery, are all that is left of a group of ash trees. "It's very ugly and very sad," said Ditte Christina Olrik, a scientist with the Danish government's Nature Agency. "The fungus is very, very small, like pinheads, on the leaf stalks. When the leaves die and fall, the wind carries them on to the next tree."
The little killer that has wiped out almost all of Denmark's ash trees, and has stealthily destroyed ash in Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden and Austria has a big name – Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, an anamorph of Chalara fraxinea. For those who enjoy a walk in the woods without a Latin degree, it's ash die-back.
The Danes, along with people in other European countries who have watched this fungus destroy their trees with a force not seen since the Dutch elm disease epidemic, have been urging Britain to ban imports of ash saplings to keep forests here quarantined.
Last week the UK government launched a consultation that ends on 26 October and could lead to an interim import ban by November. But what the environment minister announced as "timely" action might in fact be far too late.
In February, the fungus was found in a batch of trees sent from a Dutch nursery to Buckinghamshire. Between June and September it was confirmed in nurseries in Yorkshire, Surrey and Cambridgeshire, at a Forestry Commission Scotland woodland near Kilmacolm, and in ash trees planted in a Leicester car park. Conservationists hope it has not reached the 80 million ash trees in the wider British countryside, outside of new plantings.
In Denmark they have lost 90% of their ash, their third most common tree species after oak and beech and a crucial export for the timber industry, and expect that to rise.
In the state-owned forest in Zealand, north of Copenhagen, forest pathologist Iben Margrete Thomsen says their hope is that around 1% of ash in Denmark may prove resistant and survive.
Passing a stand of balding trees, she points out one that still has a normal leaf cover – "but, of course, we don't know if that is truly a resistant tree or one that will be affected very soon. In the end, though, only the few ash trees which are not susceptible to the fungus will be left.
"At first it was only the younger trees, and then we started to see it in the older trees too. Now I can see it everywhere. The fungus itself doesn't immediately kill the tree, but if you think of it acting a little like the HIV virus it weakens the immune system and allows some other disease to come in. It is the secondary disease that will finish the tree off.
"We have not seen anything on this scale since Dutch elm disease. Fungus is meant to kill trees, otherwise a tree would never die, but this escalation is something we have not seen. The UK and Ireland may well be, within the next 10 years, the only remaining places in Europe with ash. If they act.
"The rest of Europe wants the UK to act. They are saying 'get a ban' because they have seen what this disease can do. But whether or not it's too late?" She shrugged. "It may be a case of shutting the stable door when the horse has bolted. Time will tell."
Outside of the forests, ash was used in towns and cities too, to replace many of the urban trees Denmark lost to Dutch elm disease.
On Sonde Boulevard in the capital, Copenhagen, Lars Christensen is among a team of horticulturalists responsible for the city's landscaping. They, too, have seen ash die-back and here on this street have come up with their response: variation.
Along the street that runs through a residential area are planted almost a dozen different species of young trees.
"It's about rethinking the two rows of identical trees in cities. It's simple, but surprisingly difficult to convince people that we cannot be reliant on one tree species, no matter how much people like them," he said.
City trees have a tough time. Root restriction, pollution, salt and dog urine mean they have a life expectancy that is half that of a fellow forest tree. But constantly cutting down and replanting diseased trees is costly and last year Copenhagen brought in a 10% rule.
"Every tree we plant we have to check how many of that species is in an area already," explained Christensen, showing a great list of statistics for the city's areas. "If, say, we already have 10% or more of ash then we have to plant lime or willow or whatever."
But even if the city's busy residents will be protected from the sudden loss of their trees, the ash will be badly missed.
In the national forest at Gribskov, Olrik points out an ash that has been cut down, how the beautiful light-coloured wood that makes ash so popular for furniture and other uses is discoloured and blotched.
The tree trunk has an alien look, covered with unnatural-looking, thin green sprouts coming through the bark. "The tree panics when the leaves die, so to try to stay alive, it pushes out lots of these things. It's one of the signs.
"Seventy years of growth and now good for firewood only," sighs Olrik. "We cut this tree to show your UK Forestry Commission when they came here to have a look last week. They were very shocked.
"It's shocking. We are used to seeing ash die-back now, but it's still hard to think we are losing the ash tree. Not just economically, not just because it supports a unique and complex ecosystem that we will also lose, but it's such a traditional tree for Denmark; the tree of life it's called.
"You see many houses that will have a huge ash tree outside. It was supposed to protect the home from fire. Every Danish child knows a story about the ash tree, it is very important in mythology, and their death represents chaos.
"So now they are dying, some people are wondering, what does it mean? What is the future?"
"...what does it mean?  What is the future?"  Let me get this straight.  The ash trees are dying in the US because of the invasive Asian longhorn beetle, but they're dying in Europe because of a, it's not the fungus, the fungus allows "some" secondary disease, that follows the fungus, to kill the tree??
Simultaneously, the yellow cedars in Canada and Alaska are dying from a lack of snow, the pines from Arizona to Montana and Colorado are dying from bark beetle, maples are dying in the Eastern US from global warming, chestnuts are dying from a blight everywhere, oaks are dying from fungus everywhere, oh, the hemlocks have the wooly adelgid...I could go on and on.
And this is a coincidence that every species of tree, of every age, in every habitat is dying all starting in earnest at the same time?  Everything?  Everywhere?  Australia and New Zealand, Africa, India and Japan?  Palms and mangroves and birch?  It just randomly happens, that all the fungus and insects and disease go berserk within the last five years, and trees are dying even in places where it hasn't warmed significantly yet, or been in drought?
It's just wrong, wrong, wrong for trees to look like this on the 8th of October.
Pardon me while I scream.  Well, if the next links are correct, we needn't fuss.  It's in our genes to sow the seeds of our own destruction (and everything else we can drag down with us), and there's nothing to be done about it.  So enjoy that lobster roll while you can!  And try not to think about the whales...

I ought to be burning with shame,
But I don’t want to give up my claim
To the fabulous ride
Fossil fuels provide—
And most people feel just the same.

We’ve run out our species’ life span
Plus many more other than man,
So if there is meat
That you still like to eat,
It’s time now to eat all you can.

~ Benjamin the Donkey, Limericks of Doom

Following are excerpts from the website maintained by Australian author, Reg Morrison, and lastly will be a documentary series, about the essence of human nature.
I am astonished that I never heard of Mr. Morrison until a just a couple of days ago, when I came across a quote from his book, "The Spirit in the Gene:  Humanity's Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature".  Published in 1999, it was later re-issued with the title, "Plague Species: is it in our Genes?" a rhetorical question introducing a work that illustrates with great technical and philosophical insight the simple maxim of Henri le Chat Noir: We Cannot Escape Ourselves.
My favorite quote from the book, so far:  "Humans display only animal behavior.  Watch the action without the sound track and this truth becomes obvious."
In the preface, he explains the origin of his quest "...the more one examines our talent for rational thought, the less one can ignore our peculiar capacity for self-delusion and self-destruction that seems to go hand in hand with it."
Basically, he concludes that both are genetically wired.  We can no more rid ourselves of our self-destructive tendency towards self delusion than we can rid ourselves of our brains.  He was led to this study of evolution by delving into the plentiful examples of the overshoot that has come to characterize us as a "plague species" (of whose excesses the world will shortly rid itself).
Even though his conclusions echo my own, it still made for painful reading.  I don't want my worst suspicions about human nature to be confirmed.  I once liked to believe that there was such a thing as progress, that the Enlightenment was a positive, permanent trend, not an aberration.  Now, I guess that is illusory, but it still hurts to have it corroborated so convincingly:
"The curious perception prevalent among humans that unlike other creatures each of us exists as two separate entities - one physical, the other spiritual - appears to have attended our species throughout its recorded history."
"It has been the Gordian knot of all philosophy from Aristotle onward and continues to provide humanity with most of its triumphs and tragedies and all of its moral dilemmas.  In other words, this dual image of ourselves is the source of both our pleasure and our grief."
"Spirituality shapes our feelings of affection, admiration, compassion, joy and hope and weaves into our culture the glittering threads of passion that enliven our literature, music, dance drama and art.  This dichotomy of body and spirit also represents the source of most human misery, causing us to succumb to the general belief that we are morally accountable for our misdeeds."
"Most of us expect both moral and rational perfection from ourselves and others.  Human frailty irritates us.  Meanwhile the brain is often spoken of as though it were an architect-designed, fully integrated unit, rather like a computer - but one generally driven by novices and idiots.  The human brain in reality is more like an old farmhouse, a crude patchwork of lean-tos and other extensions that conceal entirely the ancient amphibian-reptilian tooted at its core.  That is works at all should be cause for wonderment."
"As for pointing to our mental failures with scorn or dismay, we might as well profess disappointment with the mechanics of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics.  In other words, the degree of disillusionment we feel in response to any particular human behavior is the precise measure of our ignorance of its evolutionary and genetic origins."
What follows is excerpted from his website:
"By selectively preserving the mystics among our hominid ancestors evolution not only gave us the weapon that would catapult us from obsolescence to world domination, it also took out a shrewd insurance against our species’ overwhelming reproductive success."
"Only such a deliciously rewarding and tamper-proof device as mysticism could have prevented us from foreseeing the danger of overpopulation a long, long time ago. And the corrosive mental derangements born of religious and political mystical beliefs will easily derail our global efforts to cooperate and survive our population peak—just as they did on Easter Island more than three centuries ago."
"By this means, the Gaian processes of automatic plague-collapse will ensure that fanatics of all kinds, both religious and political, will feed and inflate humanity’s growing fears during the next two stress-filled decades."
"This will ensure that distrust and hatred between nations, races, and religious and political groups reaches a crescendo as the environment begins its savage counter-offensive against the current plague of Homo sapiens, the biosphere’s primary destabiliser.  Looked at in this light the multitude of bonding mechanisms that bind us into semi-tribal groups both large and small now seems certain to midwife our species’ collapse."

"Evolution’s great strength lies in the fact that even the most efficient and fecund species are available for culling. This universal vulnerability hinges on what might be called the Peacock Effect. In peacock society the male’s spectacular tail is a major reproductive asset, but only in the species’ birthplace—a forest. Should the forest disappear, the peacock’s cumbersome tail instantly doubles as a gaudy advertisement for fast food in the eyes of any passing predator."
"All species possesses adaptive specialisations that have enabled them to survive and reproduce within the habitat that nurtured their specialisation. But change the environment, and such specialisations become handicaps—the more extreme the specialisation, the more lethal the handicap. In other words, each species has its own personal peacock tail, even that ‘paragon of animals’, Homo sapiens."
"In an evolutionary sense our peacock tail is just as spectacular as the bird’s, although you wouldn’t know it to look at us since it is entirely intangible and very well concealed, residing as it does in the three billion base pairs of our DNA. It is an emergent behavior, produced, it seems, by a host of genes that interact according to environmental circumstances."
"Our peacock tail is our inherently mystical nature. It is expressed in our peculiar capacity to believe implicitly in the patently unbelievable, and to attribute unnatural power or mystical significance to anything that either contributes to, or threatens, our genetic survival—thereby revealing its true origin. Mysticism’s universality and its umbilical links to DNA’s primal imperatives, ‘survive and reproduce’, clearly identify it as a genetic artefact."
"Whether our mysticism relies on a belief in supernatural forces such as gods, angels, witchcraft, astrology and intergalactic aliens, or whether we believe in luck, tea leaves, memes or market forces, the precise nature of the belief is of little consequence to our genes. The only thing that matters to them is the quality and strength of the tribal passion that those beliefs generate. Darwinian selection does the rest. Two million years of hunter-gatherer hardship has honed human mysticism into a weapon of unparalleled power—an evolutionary Excalibur …"
"The Rational Delusion"

"Reproduction is the pivotal feature of all biological existence, and the complex machinery that drives our sexual urges and regulates our daily behaviour is embedded throughout our DNA. It ensures that this crucial machinery lies beyond the reach of our new and incompetent rational cortex. Our genes insert their directives into human behaviour under the cloak of morality and culture, and reinforce those directives by powerful tides of emotion. This ensures that our genes are not handicapped by ‘rational behaviour’ when speedy genetic responses are required for genetic survival."
"That is why, under the spell of our genetically programmed ‘spirituality’, we cannot help falling in love, seeking sexual gratification, nurturing our children, forging tribal bonds, 
worshipping our gods, suspecting strangers, uniting against common enemies, and on occasions, laying down our lives for family, friends or tribe. The gaudy tides of emotion that protect and reinforce these patterns of behaviour ensure that we remain entirely unaware that these behaviours are genetically directed. In a metaphorical sense, no gene could ask for more."
"Such crucially important genetic machinery has been carefully shaped by rigid Darwinian selection during the past five million years and it brooks no ‘intellectual’ inteference. Masked by an impenetrable smokescreen of morality and culture, our DNA is now able to provide a highly flexible ‘volume-control’ for our  fecundity, a control that responds quickly to environmental cues, and whose genetic origins remain concealed from us ..."
"Emotion:  The Battle-Cry of Genes"

"The appearance of emotion signals that our genes have been stung into action by some external threat, explicit or implied. From that moment on, any other judgements made by our rational cortex may be overridden or remoulded in favour of ancient genetic behaviour that has survived in human genomes for a million years or more. The switching device is known as the “Suspension of Disbelief”. "
"The only real problem arises when there is a major discord between behaviour that might help an individual’s to survive and reproduce, and behaviour that contributes to the tribe’s survival. Such discords lie at the very core of the ‘hero’s dilemma’, and in varying degrees, they represent the genetic foundation of all human ‘morality’."
"Looked at in this light, all culture is blatantly genetic. It is preserved by emotions that disengage rational thought whenever our genes perceive the slightest threat—to themselves or to their alleles."
"Suspension of Disbelief"

"There is an intriguing mental device that our genes use whenever they want to squeeze our perceptions into a shape that better suits their purpose. This curious neuronal phenomenon is commonly known in theatrical circles as the ‘suspension of disbelief’. The term refers to the brain’s ability to switch out reality and replace it with a fictional scenario that rhymes with our genetic imperatives."
"Like the ‘hot-wire’ that a car thief uses to fire up the motor when he has no key, the ancient hotwire that links our senses directly to our genes allows us to by-pass our inexperienced and error-prone rational cortex the moment our genes perceive the slightest threat, either to them or to their alleles. It gives us instant access to violent behavioural responses, such as ‘fight’ and ‘flight’, that have helped to preserve human genomes for the past two million years."
"This ancient genetic hotwire has an astonishingly wide variety of every-day uses. The world of entertainment utterly depends on ‘suspension of disbelief’ to seduce the viewer into switching off  rational thought and believing instead in the fictitious characters and events being portrayed on the stage or screen before them."
"This ancient neuronal short-circuit switches on the moment a fictional character or event touches one of the multitude of mental buttons that are linked to our basic genetic imperatives to survive and reproduce. Touch one of those buttons and a stew of hormones and neurotransmitters flood the body and brain, generating a rush of emotion that switches out the neuronal cortex, and brings rational assessment to a halt. The imagination fires up, transforming fantasy into ‘reality’, and in that extraordinary instant almost anything becomes mentally possible. In that bizarre moment even the most trivial event may be transformed into something ‘divine’."
"Here is our genes’ secret weapon in their age-old struggle to survive and reproduce in a hazardous and unstable environment. Here is the shrewd old genetic midwife that delivers passionate belief in the patently ridiculous—in witchcraft and spells, in gods, miracles, angels and devils; in the validity of religious dogma and astrological predictions; in sustainable development, in ‘market forces’, in alien abductions and perpetual economic growth."
"In essence then, here is the device that bestows peculiar mystical significance on ‘the home team’, ‘the political party’, ‘the Church’, and ‘the Flag’, thereby bonding us into families, tribes, nations, religions and ethnic groups; into teenage and criminal gangs, and into political parties and their childish factions. And it was this same dream-making facility that allowed 19 al Qa’eda terrorists to see only heroic martyrdom in their suicidal attacks on New York and Washington on the 11th of September, 2001."
"As our social stress levels grow, so will the level of emotion throughout society. And in consequence, our ability to censor reality will grow stronger, nurturing more nightmares in the form of religious, ethnic and political extremism. In this fashion our genes will keep us largely oblivious to the threat of extinction that faces our species as it slides headlong into resource depletion, climate change and population collapse. Our ancient ability to switch off rational thought and believe genetically sanctioned ‘visions’ will nurture even more tribal extremism—religious, political and pathological."
That last paragraph is worth reading twice.  I don't pretend to understand much about genetics, but I have always agreed with his analysis about the illusion of free will.  Here's a quote from Darwin's notebook he includes, to encourage you to read the whole thing:

‘Thought, however unintelligible it may be, seems as much function of organ, as bile of liver.   This view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything. [N]or ought  one to blame others.’

Unfortunately, this concept seems to be as unacceptable now as it was when Darwin first 
penned it in one of his notebooks in the 1870’s. (He wisely refrained from pursuing the point in his published works.)

I have always had the opinion that it's a rather convenient, Ayn Randian-sort of conceit to imagine our individual choices are made without coercion - whether cultural or genetic - and our economic positions any thing other than dumb luck, or the lack thereof.

I have permission to reproduce these two photographs...did I mention he is a brilliant and accomplished photographer?  He sent them with captions:

"Virgin rainforest near Cradle Mountain in north-western Tasmania.  
Western Tasmania's ancient rainforests were part of a unique polar biota that the island inherited from Antarctica just before the two land masses drifted apart some 40 million years ago."

"These barren mountains, near Queenstown in southern Tasmania, were once clothed in relictual polar rainforest just like the one at Cradle Mountain. The region was initially devastated by fumes from an ore processing plant (just visible beyond the clump of vegetation).  Commercial logging and erosion completed the desertification process.  A host of unique species would have been lost."
Below are embedded all four parts of a documentary, The Century of the Self, which is a long but fascinating exploration into the birth of "public relations".  It reveals how Freud's idea - that behavior is really motivated, not by rational decision-making, but by buried emotions - has been expertly and purposefully exploited by government, media, and the advertising industry, particularly to manipulate groups of people.  As with so many tales of nefarious corruption, this story wends its way back to tobacco, which will explain the title of this post - Torches of Freedom.
Ever since I first learned about climate change, never mind trees dying from ozone, I have strongly advocated scaring the wits out of people.  Giving them more graphs isn't going to inspire them, the better rhetoric so cherished by Joe Romm isn't going to enlighten them, doing the maths with Bill McKibben isn't going to create a mass movement.  People don't make choices based on facts, or information.  We are hard-wired to view the world through the murky distorted lens of our basest instincts no matter how highly educated, and since there is no rosy outcome to prompt change, the only alternative is terror.  A terror which is wholly justified by the facts, I might add.
Consumption was once considered a disease.  This movie demonstrates how it was turned into a religion.  But that palliative of the masses only works as long as the goods can be produced.  What happens when that capacity is depleted - by ecosytem collapse, peak oil, violent climate change - the converging catastrophes?  Morrison predicts "...even more tribal extremism—religious, political and pathological."  I think you can bank on it.

The Century of The Self Part 1 of 4 from Kia Ora Media Group on Vimeo.

The Century of The Self Part 2 of 4 from Kia Ora Media Group on Vimeo.

The Century of The Self Part 3 of 4 from Kia Ora Media Group on Vimeo.

The Century of The Self Part 4 of 4. from Kia Ora Media Group on Vimeo.


  1. "This will ensure that distrust and hatred between nations, races, and religious and political groups reaches a crescendo as the environment begins its savage counter-offensive against the current plague of Homo sapiens, the biosphere’s primary destabiliser. Looked at in this light the multitude of bonding mechanisms that bind us into semi-tribal groups both large and small now seems certain to midwife our species’ collapse."

    Savagely true, along with the final paragraph you highlight. It is tragic that the truth should be so final.

  2. Carpe Diem from the Rolling Stones! Who'd a thunk?
    (but no mention of ozone or climate change or ocean acidification.)

    Doom and Gloom


  3. Haha Catman - thanks, I love it!! I'm going right over to The Downward Spiral to tell Bill Hicks he was wrong about the Stones.


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