Sunday, January 13, 2013

The withering of all woods is drawing near

And it may well be that that time is drawing near at last.  For if Sauron of old destroyed the gardens, the Enemy today seems likely to wither all the woods.

~ Treebeard...Chapter 4The Twin Towers, The Lord of the Rings
January 2012, Maidstone, England
I don't think of myself as lacking imagination, but, being a mostly doggedly practical person, I never was a fan (loathed him!...thought he was a weird boring wuss!) of elaborately convoluted fantasies such as Tolkien's.  I tried, and failed, to read him when I was a teenager.  But now I think maybe he was on to something (I've been reading the link above to Chapter 4, an oddly enchanting Chinese translation).  When it comes to the advent of agriculture, the mortal threat from machines, and the massacre of trees, it would appear Tolkien is a deep ecologist after all. Since of course, Wit's End is all about trees dying from pollution, it seems appropriate to acknowledge that he had far more to impart than just cute idiosyncratic nomenclature.  Here is the last known photo of Tolkien in front of his favorite tree, a pinus nigra, the seed for which was brought from Greece in 1790 and planted in the Oxford Botanical Garden.
He called it Laocoön, and it is apparent why when comparing the muscular branches with the sculpture.
The original depiction of the punishment of Laocoön for warning the Trojans of Greeks bearing gifts stands in Rome, but there is a copy at the museum at Oxford.
Alas the forest isn't the only ecosystem that is collapsing thanks to the atrocious hemorrhaging of industrial pollution.  The coral reefs are expiring at a harrowing pace too, and they are at least as essential to the rest of life on earth as trees.  Our perceptions of both the oceans and the forests have altered in conjunction with the imperceptible degradation of their condition.  We are becoming so inured to ugly, dead trees and stumps that many talented photographers, like the anonymous contributor to flickr who took the pictures in this post, lovingly photograph them as though they are examples of natural beauty...instead of the abominable decay and death they truly represent.
November 2011, Maidstone, England
The pictures of leaves that follow are shared from Windspiritkeeper's blog.  It's amazing to me how closely the damaged leaves he photographs in the West - Santa Barbara and Arizona - resemble the injured foliage on the East Coast, different species in a very different environment...but impacted by the same atmospheric gases. 
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that most life in the sea is actually microbial.  The authors of the book "Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas" document how pollution has initiated the collapse of ocean life, first among the tiniest organisms upon which all larger species depend.

"What does a dead or dying coral reef look like?  The deterioration is not always obvious, even to the experts.  For starters, most of us don't realize what a pristine, pre-human coral reef should look like.  Typically, the reefs we know and regard as healthy were already significantly changed by human activities decades - even centuries - ago….This lag between cause and effect is frequently seen in ecosystems due to their resilience.  A resilient ecosystem can recover from insults - up to  a point - without visibly changing, thus blinding us to the damage inflicted."

"There is another, more subtle reason for our blindness.  Each generation of reef scientists, SCUBA divers, and fishermen tend to accept the state of a reef when they first behold it as normal.  As the years go by, they compare their current observations against the way things used to be, the way - in their mind - they should be.  When the next generation arrives on the scene, the reef has declined farther.  What one generation regarded as degraded, the next conceders normal.  Furthermore, specific studies assessing the health of a coral reef typically compare it against a baseline drawn from the start of the current study or, at best, the observations of a previous study completed a few years earlier.  Each new study starts with a more recent baseline, one that has already shifted a little farther from pristine.  This phenomenon is called the shifting baseline syndrome…"

"…However, since the 1970s the pace of decline has quickened as stressors increase and their effects compound."
"Every ecosystem I studied is unrecognizably different from when I started.  I have a son who is 30, and I used to take him snorkeling on the reefs in Jamaica to show him all the beautiful corals there.  I have a daughter who is 17.  I can't show her anything but seaweed."

~ Jeremy Jackson

p. 29

"Given enough time, coral reef structures can become epic in scale.  The Great Barrier Reef covers hundreds of thousands of square kilometers and is easily visible form space.   Nothing else built by living organisms, incuding humans, even comes close.  Darwin never addressed how the humble corals build such massive structures…"

"Having been around for at least 540 million years Cnidarians have survived environmental upheavals that are unfathomable to us, including all of the previous mass extinctions, which collectively wiped out 99.9% of Earth's earlier species.  Their tenacity speaks for itself.  Corals are extremely tough and adaptable creatures."

Chapter 7:

More Nutrients Equals Even More Algae

"Human activities are adding huge quantities of nutrients, including phosphate and nitrogen compounds, to the environment.  Extensive field observations at Kaneohe Bay and the Gulf of Aqaba have implicated nutrient enrichment in coral death.  Although short-term dosing with added nutrients often fails to show direct negative impacts on corals, nutrient enrichment has subtle, long-term, detrimental effects on essential coral activities.  Furthermore, by stimulating algal growth, added nutrients contribute to the DDAMnation of the reefs."

Along the same analogy, I had to laugh reading a 2009 essay by Daniel Pauly - "Aquacalypse Now" even though it's not at all funny, especially this part:

"Unfortunately, it is not just the future of the fishing industry that is at stake, but also the continued health of the world’s largest ecosystem. While the climate crisis gathers front-page attention on a regular basis, people--even those who profess great environmental consciousness--continue to eat fish as if it were a sustainable practice. But eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a manatee. In the past 50 years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, cod, and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent. One study, published in the prestigious journal Science, forecast that, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will have “collapsed,” meaning that they will be generating 10 percent or less of their peak catches. Whether or not that particular year, or even decade, is correct, one thing is clear: Fish are in dire peril, and, if they are, then so are we."

What amused me was this section, because you could easily substitute trees for fish and forests for fisheries:

"The extent of the fisheries’ Ponzi scheme eluded government scientists for many years. They had long studied the health of fish populations, of course, but typically, laboratories would focus only on the species in their nation’s waters.  And those studying a particular species in one country would communicate only with those studying that same species in another. Thus, they failed to notice an important pattern: Popular species were sequentially replacing each other in the catches that fisheries were reporting, and, when a species faded, scientific attention shifted to the replacement species. At any given moment, scientists might acknowledge that one-half or two-thirds of fisheries were being overfished, but, when the stock of a particular fish was used up, it was simply removed from the denominator of the fraction. For example, the Hudson River sturgeon wasn’t counted as an overfished stock once it disappeared from New York waters; it simply became an anecdote in the historical record. The baselines just kept shifting, allowing us to continue blithely damaging marine ecosystems."

"It was not until the 1990s that a series of high-profile scientific papers demonstrated that we needed to study, and mitigate, fish depletions at the global level. They showed that phenomena previously observed at local levels--for example, the disappearance of large species from fisheries’ catches and their replacement by smaller species--were also occurring globally. It was a realization akin to understanding that the financial meltdown was due not to the failure of a single bank, but, rather, to the failure of the entire banking system--and it drew a lot of controversy."
Especially pertinent are the parallels between US Forestry Service employees with their academic affiliates, and "fisheries biologists" who work for government agencies as described here:

"The notion that fish are globally imperiled has been challenged in many ways--perhaps most notably by fisheries biologists, who have questioned the facts, the tone, and even the integrity of those making such allegations. Fisheries biologists are different than marine ecologists like myself. Marine ecologists are concerned mainly with threats to the diversity of the ecosystems that they study, and so, they frequently work in concert with environmental NGOs and are often funded by philanthropic foundations. By contrast, fisheries biologists traditionally work for government agencies, like the National Marine Fisheries Service at the Commerce Department, or as consultants to the fishing industry, and their chief goal is to protect fisheries and the fishermen they employ. I myself was trained as a fisheries biologist in Germany, and, while they would dispute this, the agencies for which many of my former classmates work clearly have been captured by the industry they are supposed to regulate. Thus, there are fisheries scientists who, for example, write that cod have “recovered” or even “doubled” their numbers when, in fact, they have increased merely from 1 percent to 2 percent of their original abundance in the 1950s."
A comment left at that article by an anonymous reader, which unfortunately had no links to substantiate the claims, was intriguing as well since it supports exactly what has occurred with terrestrial ecosystems:

"Also more emphasis should be placed on the effective pollution in the decline of global fisheries. Information going back to the 1950s I believe estimated that fishery production could easily sustain global population increases well into the end of this century. Studies from the 70s and 80s warned us about the damage that widespread pollution was having on the base resources that these fisheries rely on. Unfortunately those warnings went largely ignored by governments around the world including the US government, the Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese etc."

"Now with the combined forces of massive overfishing and massive pollution increases, we've got a real problem on our hands, a problem that we're going to have to deal with over the next 25 years, or we will be looking at the collapse of our oceans as viable ecosystems, and if the oceans die, we all die, it's that simple. We'll be talking about human starvation and land-based ecosystem collapses, the like of which has never been seen. We won't have to wait for global warming to wipe us out, we kill the oceans, and we kill ourselves in very short order. And not buying fish from the weasels who run Whole Foods Market or not eating sushi, ain't going to solve this problem. It's going to take a global effort, first to stop the never-ending flow of land-based pollution into our oceans, the scale of which has never really been fully measured or accounted for, next tight controls on fishing volumes worldwide will have to be placed, until the various fisheries have had a chance to recover. These measures must be taken over the next 10 years to avoid catastrophe."
The National Climate Assessment Advisory Committee over at has released a draft for public comment about the dangerously accelerating effects of global warming.  Every climate blog and news outlet is discussing the most terrifying aspects - but at Wit's End, I'll skip all that and concentrate on Chapter 7 - Forests.  This report made me more than my usual crazy.  I could find only two references to pollution in the entire paper.   The first one, incredibly, admits that pollutants are more important than climate in eastern forest decline, which begs the question - why wouldn't they also be more important in the horrendously polluted western forests?  Well, the answer is, foresters would love to blame eastern forest decline on drought from climate change too, for reasons that will become obvious...but they can't - because it's wetter, not drier!  So they try to blame insects, disease and fungus - but those don't really cooperate in explaining a widespread, total dieback either, because they're mostly species-specific.

p. 266

"In eastern forests, forest composition, forest structure, and pollutants appear to be more important than climate in causing large-scale tree mortality over recent decades. Nonetheless, tree mortality is sensitive to rising temperature (Dietze and Moorcroft 2011), and is expected to increase as climate warms. Because disturbances are normal yet rare at large scales, the extent to which recent forest disturbances can be directly attributed to climate change is uncertain. However, a growing body of research documents clear linkages between climatic conditions projected for the future and subsequent ecosystem responses, and confirms emerging risks to forests."

p.  267

"Tree mortality is often a combination of many factors, thus increases in pollutants, droughts, and wildfires will increase the probability of a tree dying. Under projected climate conditions, rising temperatures could become more important than, or work together with, stand characteristics and these other stressors to increase mortality. As temperatures increase to levels projected for mid-century and beyond, eastern forests may be at risk of die-off or decline (Dale et al. 2010b) similar to recent die-offs in western forests (Allen et al. 2010; Raffa et al. 2008), which already have been more severe even than recent estimates (IPCC 2007). New evidence indicates that most tree species maintain only a small hydraulic safety margin, reinforcing the idea that mesic as well as semiarid forests are vulnerable to drought-induced mortality under warming climates (Choat et al. 2012)."

That's it!  That's all, folks!!  The disturbances in the chart don't include pollution anywhere - not acid rain, not excess nitrogen deposition, not tropospheric ozone - not even disease or fungus, and it's the lethal fungus spread by beetles that finishes off trees weakened from ozone.

Figure 7.1: Forest Ecosystem Disturbances

"Caption: The distribution of major forested  ecosystem disturbance types in North America varies by topography, vegetation, weather patterns, climate gradients, and proximity to human settlement. Severity is mapped using the MODIS Global Disturbance Index, with moderate (orange) and high (red) severity. Fire along with other disturbances dominates much of the western forested ecosystems. Storms affect the Gulf Coast of the U.S., insect damage is widespread but currently concentrated in western regions, and timber harvest prevails in the Southeast. Figure source: (Goetz et al. 2012); Copyright 2012 American Geophysical Union."

As you go through the report, it becomes more and more phantasmic.  This prediction is patently absurd given that the forests (just LOOK at them) are in massive, rapid dieback ALREADY:

p. 269  "In the eastern U.S., elevated CO2 and temperature may increase forest growth and potentially carbon storage, if sufficient water is available."

This map is delusional for the same reason.  It purportedly indicates CO2 uptake - a ludicrous assertion.  The forests are DYING.  They are net emitting CO2, not absorbing it.
Figure 7.4: U.S. Forests are Important Carbon Sinks

"Caption: U.S. Forests currently absorb about 13% of national carbon dioxide emissions.  Southwest forests absorb considerably less than many eastern forests and those along the western coast. Climate change, combined with current societal trends regarding land use and forest management, is projected to reduce forest CO2 uptake. Figure shows carbon uptake rates for U.S. forests in tons per hectare per year (methods from Running et al. 2004)."

A rational person might wonder, why would the authors of this report be peddling hallucinatory chimeras?  The answer becomes clear on page 272 (and remember what Pauly said about "fisheries biologists"):

"In the U.S., afforestation (active establishment or planting of forests) could capture and store a 
maximum of 225 million tons of carbon per year from 2010−2110 (EPA 2005; King et al. 2007).
Tree and shrub encroachment into grasslands, rangelands, and savannas provides a large 
potential carbon sink that could exceed half of what existing U.S. forests capture and store
annually (King et al. 2007)."

See?  We need to plant more trees.  That will be good for the climate - and good for the foresters, won't it?  Here's another little motivation to avoid implicating emissions from burning fuel as being death to trees, which, purely coincidentally, intimates huge profit potential:

Figure 7.6: Location of Potential Forestry Biomass Resources

"Caption: Potential forestry bioenergy resources by 2030 at $80 per dry ton of biomass based on current forest area, production rates based on aggressive management for fast-growth, and short rotation bioenergy plantations. Units are Oven Dry Tons (ODT) per Square Mile at the county level, where an ODT is 2,000 pounds of biomass from which the moisture has been removed. Includes extensive material from existing forestland such as residues, simulated thinnings, and some pulpwood for bioenergy, among other sources.  Source: based on (DOE 2011)."

Notice the source quoted by the foresters - the Department of Energy.  I can just see our corporate overlords slathering over the money to be made using "forestry bioenergy resources", can't you?

Let's move on to an image posted at Climate Progress, which compares the night-time view from space of the flaring methane at the Bakken Oil Fields to the city lights of Minneapolis and Chicago.

Using photos from NASA, that picture originated from a group called Ceres.  They announced their intent to pressure industry to reduce flaring, which is wasteful and polluting, in a press release:

"The rapid growth in domestic oil production has set the United States on track to become the world’s top oil producer by 2015, but investors are wary of the environmentally damaging practices associated with that growth, specifically the burning off—or flaring—of natural gas that is produced as a byproduct from oil wells."

"In North Dakota’s Bakken shale region, widespread flaring across millions of acres lights up the night sky, burning off enough energy each day to heat half a million homes. Flaring is also prevalent in other key shale regions, like Texas’s Eagle Ford. Excessive flaring of natural gas affects regional air quality and creates significant greenhouse gas emissions that investors are seeking to reduce."
“'The flaring of natural gas is a tremendous economic waste, and it threatens oil developers’ license to operate, as well as the environment,' said Pat Zerega, director of shareholder advocacy at Mercy Investment Services, the lead filer of this resolution. 'Numerous Sisters of Mercy, as well as myself, live in areas of Pennsylvania and New York affected by flaring from shale gas operations, and our concern over the environmental impacts of flaring continues to grow. Continental should focus on eliminating this wasteful practice.'"

"The domestic oil industry’s practice of allowing billions of cubic feet of natural gas to be flared or vented is only loosely regulated at the state level, and growing domestic oil development has propelled the U.S. into the top 10 gas flaring countries globally along with Russia, Nigeria, and Iraq. Flaring is of particular concern in North Dakota, where the number of producing oil wells grew 21 percent between January 2012 and October 2012, according to the North Dakota Industrial Commission."
"In its most recent report on oil production, the state’s Commission also noted that while "the high liquids content makes gathering and processing of Bakken gas economic" and 'additions to gathering and processing capacity are helping,"at least 30 percent of this gas continues to be flared. Given the rapid growth of oil production in the region, these estimates may lag behind actual flaring levels."

“'Even with lower natural gas prices, there is no reason that oil developers in the Bakken should be burning off a fuel that their colleagues in the Marcellus region are working to capture. It’s simply bad practice, and it is making domestic oil a particularly high-carbon source,' said Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas program at Ceres. “'Ceres has been working with the oil industry to eliminate its most wasteful and environmentally harmful practices. Flaring can be reduced to essentially zero, and the industry should hold itself accountable to achieving this goal.'"
"Ceres coordinates annual shareholder filings on a range of sustainability issues. Additional examples of Ceres’s work with shareholders can be found in Investor Power, a publication highlighting action on palm oil, hydraulic fracturing, the homebuilding sector and the electric power industry."For more information: Brian Bowen, 617-247-0700 x148,

Who, you may ask, is Ceres?

About Ceres

Ceres is an advocate for sustainability leadership.  Ceres mobilizes a powerful coalition of investors, companies and public interest groups to accelerate and expand the adoption of sustainable business practices and solutions to build a healthy global economy. Ceres also directs the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), a network of 100 institutional investors with collective assets totaling more than $11 trillion.

I like their name, don't you?  Ceres, the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture, fertility, fucundity, and maternal love!  Her name is etymologically linked to "grow", "cereal", "create" and "increase".  What a terrific choice for a non-profit that is all about "sustainable growth" and "building corporate relationships" and is "working with the oil industry to eliminate its most wasteful and environmentally harmful practices".  Most??  The entire industry is harmful! 
[Did you happen to hear that air pollution in Beijing has been so thick buildings are disappearing?  "WHO guidelines say average concentrations of the tiniest pollution particles - called PM2.5 - should be no more than 25 microgrammes per cubic metre.  Air is unhealthy above 100 microgrammes. At 300, all children and elderly people should remain indoors.  Official Beijing city readings on Saturday suggested pollution levels over 400.  Unofficial reading from a monitor at the US embassy recorded 800."]

Here is Ceres propaganda - go ahead, watch it, I dare ya!  The antidote is here - as an example of what they endorse - burning trees (you should check out the pictures of biomass plants).


I wrote to Brian Bowen to find out what was meant by statements in the Ceres release that "Excessive flaring of natural gas affects regional air quality." and later "...The flaring of natural gas is a tremendous economic waste, and it threatens oil developers’ license to operate, as well as the environment..."

I asked him:

Could you tell me specifically what the air quality issue is, and environmental threats, through flaring?  Is this worse than just releasing the gas?  What are the emissions from burned natural gas? 

He answered:

"Just releasing the gas is worse, as methane is many times stronger a greenhouse gas than CO2. Further reading on methane emissions here:"

"But burning off natural gas creates CO2, which is of course also a strong greenhouse gas."

"According to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, 240 million cubic feet of gas flared is per day in the state."


Brian Bowen | Manager, Communications

April 2012, South Green, England
So anyone who knows me, knows I couldn't leave it there:

Thanks.  What about NOx?  Are tropospheric ozone precursors worse from unburned methane, or burned methane?  I see it mentioned in the endnotes of the report you linked to:

"In addition to methane’s direct influence on climate, it also has a number of indirect effects including its role as an important precursor to the formation of tropospheric ozone. For some methane sources, emission control measures also reduce other co-emitted substances such as the more reactive volatile organic compounds that contribute to the local formation of ozone, as well as air toxics, such as benzene, carbon tetrachloride and chloroform. Thus, some methane mitigation measures provide local air-quality benefits. Controlling methane emissions and the associated ozone concentrations would also lead to substantial avoided crop yield losses (about 25 million tones of four staple crops) benefitting national development and food security – see UNEP/WMO Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone –"

And he replied:

I'd have to direct you to the authors of that report for more info, I'm afraid.
Sure, so, what's in the report?

"Box 2: What is tropospheric ozone?"

"Ozone (O3) is a reactive gas that exists in two layers of the atmosphere: the stratosphere (the upper layer) and the troposphere (ground level to ~10–15 km). In the stratosphere, O3 is considered to be beneficial as it protects life on Earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In contrast, at ground level, it is an air pollutant harmful to human health and ecosystems, and it is a major component of urban smog. In the troposphere, O3 is also a significant greenhouse gas. The threefold increase of the O3 concentration in the northern hemisphere during the past 100 years has made it the third most important contributor to the human enhancement of the global greenhouse effect, after CO2 and CH4."

"In the troposphere, O3 is formed by the action of sunlight on O3 precursors that have natural and anthropogenic sources. These precursors are CH4, nitrogen oxides (NOX), VOCs and CO. It is important to understand that reductions in both CH4 and CO emissions have the potential to substantially reduce O3 concentrations and reduce global warming. In contrast, reducing VOCs would clearly be beneficial but has a small impact on the global scale, while reducing NOX  has multiple additional effects that result in its net impact on climate being minimal."
February 2012, Thurnham, England
Ozonists and Ozonistas already knew all that (and also that I like rusting hulks of vehicles) - but mostly this was interesting for two points.  One, according to this report, ozone has increased THREE TIMES in the northern hemisphere in last 100 years.  That's a lot.  It's far more, for instance, than CO2.  The other thing is that, since this report is focussed on climate change (what isn't), reducing NOX is not a priority.  They want to reduce methane and CO because those are the precursors that "...have the potential to substantially reduce O3 concentrations and reduce global warming."  Methane and CO produce the longer-lasting, persistent, well-mixed background ozone - precisely what has passed the threshold that vegetation can tolerate.

Additional notes on ozone:

Benefits of the measures for crop yields

"Ozone is toxic to plants. A vast body of literature describes experiments andobservations showing the substantial effects of O3 on visible leaf health, growth and productivity for a large number of crops, trees and other plants. Ozone also affects vegetation composition and diversity. Globally, the full implementation of CH4 measures results in significant reductions in O3 concentrations leading to avoided yield losses of about 25 million tonnes of four staple crops each year. The implementation of the BC measures would account for about a further 25 million tonnes of avoided yield losses in comparison with the reference scenario (Figure 1).  This is due to significant reductions in emissions of the precursors CO, VOCs and NOX that reduce O3 concentrations."

Note, that the avoided yield losses calculated are based on the "recommended reductions" - not on a zero emissions scenario.  They don't tell us how much yield is lost currently, which is obviously more than would be saved by implementing the "recommended reductions".  Plus, avoided yield losses are based on direct stunting of growth and don't include the much much greater loss from opportunistic pathogen attacks that have been proven to ensue when plants are exposed to ozone.
"...Furthermore, even the direct influence on yields are based on estimates for only four staple crops, and impacts on leafy crops, productive grasslands and food quality were not included, so that the calculated values are likely to be an underestimate of the total impact. In addition,
extrapolation of results from a number of experimental studies to assess O3 impacts on ecosystems strongly suggests that reductions in O3 could lead to substantial increases in the net primary productivity. This could have a substantial impact on carbon sequestration, providing additional climate benefits."

Wow.  Think about that - they've only included four crops - what must the rest be?  All the other produce, and what about landcaping stock?  Also, they don't say so, but they didn't include tree crops.  What about nuts and fruit?  They have snuck in the fact that the O3 impact on "ecosystems" is decreasing net primary productivity - in other words, reducing the growth of trees and plants - other than cultivated annual crops.  When they say that reducing ozone would increase NPP such that it would have a "substantial" impact on carbon sequestration, ameliorating climate change, that sounds...substantial.

I went to the NASA website where the original satellite image came from and it was kind of sad.

Here's a bigger version of the US from NASA.  New Jersey is one solid blinding light with Long Island exploding from it like a firecracker:
Here's a screenshot of the whole world.  It's humbling because it's pretty obvious who the gluttonous energy hogs are... and aren't.  Actually it's kind of thrilling and incredible how dark the Amazon and the heart of Africa are...someplace left on earth that is a remnant of millions of years of evolution before we leapt in to massacre every bit we could?

But the video from the satellite is the part that is really depressing.  First, though, a couple of timely links:  Paul and Anne Erlich have a new paper out, "Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided?" which is relaxing fare.  Next, for all my friends who romanticise the primitive and believe that capitalism (evil as it is), is the sole source of our calamitous tenure on earth, which we could somehow attenuate by, I don't know...changing our "culture"?... I include this passage from a review of Jared Diamond's new work, The World Until Yesterday, which has these anecdotes from the book:

"The custom among the Pirahã Indians of Brazil is that women give birth alone. The linguist Steve Sheldon once saw a Pirahã woman giving birth on a beach, while members of her tribe waited nearby. It was a breech birth, however, and the woman started crying in agony. “Help me, please! The baby will not come.” Sheldon went to help her, but the other Pirahã stopped him, saying that she didn’t want his help. The woman kept up her screams. The next morning both mother and baby were found dead.  The Pirahã believe that people have to endure hardships on their own."

"The anthropologist Allan Holmberg was with a group of Siriono Indians of Bolivia when a middle-aged woman grew gravely ill. She lay in her hammock, too unwell to walk or speak. Her husband told Holmberg that the tribe had to move on and would leave her there to die. They left her a fire and some water and walked away without saying goodbye. Even her husband had no parting words for her.  Holmberg was also sick and went away to get treatment. When he returned three weeks later, he saw no trace of the woman. At the next camp, he found her remains picked clean by scavenging animals."

“'She had tried her utmost to follow the fortunes of the band,' Holmberg wrote, 'but had failed and had experienced the same fate that is accorded all Siriono whose days of utility are over.' Tribes at this subsistence level just don’t have the resources to care for people who can’t keep up."

I'm not going to describe the method, you'll have to read the article for yourself because it's pretty graphically gruesome - but it appears that the Australian Aborigines "…are probably the first primitive people to devise a wholly effective birth control. In the baking wilderness they inhabit, numbers must be kept down, for they cannot maintain large families on their low level of subsistence; and long treks would be impossible with a large family of small children and babies in arms."
Visit the Art Gallery of Kennis & Kennis
There's some speculation that they learned their lesson about overpopulation having promptly, upon their arrival on the continent, driven the native megafauna rapidly extinct about 46,000 years ago (species which had survived numerous changes of climate over 2 million years!).  (Then, when a bridge to Tasmania formed due to sea level rise 41,000 years ago, they marched over and ate all the megafauna there, too.)  Whether humans caused the extinctions has been a matter of contention for years, but perhaps, as Dr. John Alroy says:

“The debate really should be over now. Hunting did it: end of story. Personally, though, I never understood what there was to debate because nothing else made sense."  (I like this guy.  He's a scientist but he can see through the jargon.  It's just like the trees - they are dying, all over the world - it has to be the composition of the atmosphere - because nothing else makes sense.)
“Most Quaternary palaeoecologists immediately point to climate change whenever there is an interesting pattern to explain, but huge climate changes happened over and over again throughout the Pleistocene and there was no mass extinction. And the new data rule out any role for climate change at all."
“The only other viable hypotheses was the landscape burning idea. But that never really seemed plausible because all sorts of organisms also should have gone extinct if only fire was important. The fact that only very large mammals (and birds) went extinct only ever made any sense on the theory that hunting was the mechanism."
“In reality, the debate should have started and ended with Paul Martin's landmark analysis from 1967. But it has dragged on for nearly a half-century now because the idea that Stone Age hunters could cause such utter havoc across three entire continents over very short time spans strikes many people as incredible. Like it or not, though, it's the truth, and it's time for us to all confront it.”
Latest Graph of Arctic Sea Ice loss, incorporating 2012 
One last link - there is an interactive map of nuclear reactors around the world where you can zoom in and speculate on what it will be like when the grids go down sometime in the next 1,000 years or so or for whatever reason, they can't be cooled, and they melt down like Fukushima!  Time to move to the southern hemisphere...

Finally here's the NASA video, with the transcript below.  I do realize that, as a Diva of Doom, I have a tendency to see the worst - but honestly, how the narration can describe city lights as stars and galaxies, and wax euphoric that from space, the planet "comes alive with light" - from sources such as the "massive flames from gas flares produced as a byproduct of oil and gas exploration in the Middle East" - not to mention that "Glowing just as bright, flaming wildfires burn across Australia" as anything other than the most horrific travesty of nature, well...that's our human way, isn't it?  All about us...


In daylight, our big blue marble is all land, oceans and clouds.

But the night is electric.

Seen from space, our planet comes alive with light.

This new view of the Earth's night lights is a composite of data acquired by the polar orbiting Suomi NPP satellite.

Aboard the satellite, a newly designed instrument called VIIRS is able to collect what scientists say is a remarkably detailed view of the Earth at night.

In some places, city lights resemble solitary stars in the night sky.

In other places, dense clusters of galaxies.

The satellite can even distinguish brightly lit boats that line Egypt's Nile River.

And the massive flames from gas flares produced as a byproduct of oil and gas exploration in the Middle East.

As the satellite passes over the darkness of the Himalayas, it shows how human settlement is bound by natural borders.

Even political borders are starkly visible in this view of North and South Korea.

And in a line of fishing boats that dot the Yellow Sea.

But not all light is electric. Glowing just as bright, flaming wildfires burn across Australia.

This new view of the Earth at night offers a unique perspective for exploring the many places in which we live, and seeing the impact of human populations around the world, no matter how faint or how bright their lights shine.
September 2012, Bearsted, England


  1. Good post, Gail.
    Bravo for noting the National Climate Assessment Advisory Committee Draft report.
    There is a place to Provide Comments on the Report
    Between January 14th and April 12th only: Please go to the Review and Comment System to provide comments on the draft.

  2. Thanks David - not to worry, I was standing by at 9:00 am to register and posted this comment:

    This comment refers to Chapter 7, Forestry.

    It is astonishing that there are only two references to the damage done to forests by air pollution, and none to nitrogen overfertilization or acid rain, since these are the major threats to forest health. Tropospheric ozone is well-known to be toxic to plants, and the background level is inexorably rising. Forests are in decline globally. Localized drought from climate change and species-specific pathogen attacks from insects, disease and fungus cannot account for the accelerating rate of tree death across species and habitats everywhere in the world. Controlled fumigation experiments and hundreds of published research papers have demonstrated that plants whose immunities are weakened from ozone are more susceptible to opportunistic insect, disease and fungus. Likewise, is is equally well understood by the scientific community that plants - whether annual crops or native trees - under current ambient concentrations of ozone must allocate energy to repair damage to foliage, thus robbing root systems of nutrients, making vegetation more vulnerable to drought and wind-throw.

    This Chapter is doubly egregious because it makes two other ludicrous propositions. One is that climate change can be ameliorated through reforestation. New trees aren't going to grow if the US doesn't lead the world in a radical reduction of emissions of precurosors to ozone by drastic measures such as rationing fuel, if need be. And yet Chapter 7 also endorses the burning of "biomass", which, aside from its association with the obscenity of clear cutting timber, will only ADD to the emission of ozone precursors.

    With foresters endorsing the logging and burning of trees it's no wonder air pollution is downplayed in this analysis, which is so flawed as to be disingenuous.



    book (free download):

  3. Good comment, Gail, on the obvious and dangerous damage that ozone, and other aerosol pollutants do to our flora.
    I, also, have observed and documented dead or damaged trees and plants that suffer from the continued and increasing levels of pollution.
    A tree's genetic coding has not suddenly told the trees to die off early, but the levels of human caused pollution has drastically increased.
    Hopefully we can inspire a competent and courageous botanist, chemist, or forester to step forward and reinforce observations and data like yours.
    Remember, every tree, each flower, or bush is a forest unto itself, and should be honored as a gift from Mother Nature.

  4. Damn you, Diva of Doom. I just get my head into a place that makes me feel some hope that maybe, just maybe, there's still a chance that things can turn around, and: I come to listen to you, and am reminded that a leopard doesn't change its spots :(

  5. Congratulations!

    You got picked up by Desdemona Despair!

    (Just an excerpt, not including the ozone)


  6. Heh, I was thrilled! That's Des himself on the far left at the first Doomer Dinner in Seattle in ...2010??


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