Saturday, August 10, 2013

Awaiting Greatness

By now there is general agreement among climate scientists that, awkward as it seems, global warming has been in "pause" mode for the last decade.  It is believed the expected warming is going into the deep oceans, and also has been shielded by aerosols.  Yet in that same decade, the death of trees has vastly accelerated.  Visibly damaged foliage on all plant species, including annuals being watered in pots, is ubiquitous and worsening every year.  Already now, in early August, leaves flutter like yellow confetti on the drive to Wit's End.  Aren't leaves supposed to change to brilliant colors in October...and fall off in November?
The CO2 obsessed might conclude that the trees are dying prematurely from climate change - but the example of the sea mammal disaster in Florida is instructive.

From the Toronto Star:

Deaths of hundreds of manatees, dolphins and pelicans in Florida a warning
MELBOURNE, FLA.—The first hint that something was amiss here, in the shallow lagoons and brackish streams that buffer inland Florida from the Atlantic’s salt water, came last summer in the Banana River, just south of Kennedy Space Centre. Three manatees — the languid, plant-munching, over-upholstered mammals known as sea cows — died suddenly and inexplicably, one after another, in a spot where deaths were rare. 
A year later, the inquiry into those deaths has become a cross-species murder mystery, a trail of hundreds of deaths across one-third of the Indian River estuary, one of the richest marine ecosystems in the continental United States. 
Along 80 kilometres of northern estuary waters off Brevard County and the Kennedy space complex, about 280 manatees have died in the past 12 months, 109 of them in the same sudden manner as the Banana River victims. As the manatee deaths peaked this spring, hundreds of pelicans began dying along the same stretch of water, followed this summer by scores of bottlenose dolphins. 
The cause continues to evade easy explanation. But a central question is whether the deaths are symptoms of something more ominous: the collapse of the natural balance that sustains the 250-km estuary’s northern reaches. 
We may have reached a tipping point,” said Troy Rice, who directs the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, a federal, state and local government partnership. 
Rice’s fear, widely shared, is that an ecosystem that supports more than 4,300 species of wildlife — and commercial fisheries, tourism and other businesses generating nearly $4 billion annually — is buckling under the strain of decades of pollution generated by coastal Florida’s explosive development. 
The evidence of decline is compelling. 
In 2011 and 2012, unprecedented blooms of algae blanketed the estuary’s northern reaches for months, killing vast fields of underwater sea grass that are the building blocks of the estuary ecosystem. The grasses are breeding grounds for fish, cover from predators, home to countless creatures at the bottom of the food chain and, not least of all, the favourite menu item of manatees. 
The sea grass has largely been supplanted by macroalgae, fast-growing seaweeds that clump into huge mats that drift free in the waters. And the character of the estuary is changing: Already, algae-eating fish like menhaden are significantly increasing, Rice said. 
The scope and suddenness of the algae blooms took scientists by surprise, but their source is no secret: Off Brevard County, the estuary is badly overloaded with nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient found in fertilizers, rotting organic matter and human and animal waste. 
State and federal authorities long ago limited dumping of nitrogen-rich effluents from sewage-treatment plants and factories. But so-called nonpoint sources of pollution, like lawn fertilizer and septic tanks, have been far harder to control. 
Now, some experts say, the rapid urbanization of the Florida coast, from the boom years of the Space Age to the later growth of retirement condos, appears to have pushed the accumulation of those wastes. 
Brevard has grown explosively, to nearly 545,000 in the 2010 census, from 23,700 people in 1950. The Banana River and other fingers of the estuary are a bricolage of pristine nature reserves cheek-to-jowl with beachfront motels, tract homes fronting on canals, even a golf course in the centre of the Banana River itself. 
Where the nitrogen came from is unclear. Relying on analyses of nitrogen isotopes in algae collected from the estuary, research professor Brian Lapointe of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University concluded that most came from sewage — most likely from the 100,000 or so septic tanks that he estimated were dug during Brevard’s rapid expansion. 
But a comprehensive search for the origins of the nitrogen has yet to be conducted.
The "Nitrogen Cascade" has been described as the biggest environmental disaster you've never heard of.  The nitrogen cycle is one of the "nine planetary boundaries" deemed to have already been breached in 2009, when those designations were outlined by Rockström.  Nitrous oxides, derived mainly from burning fuel, are part of this reactive nitrogen pollution - and the primary anthropogenic precursor to ozone, which is known to be highly toxic to vegetation.

This man is sobbing because a tree fell on his wife while she sat resting on a bench, killing her and their unborn child.

From the New York Times:
Ms. Li-Dikov, 30, was killed on Sunday when a giant tree toppled in Kissena Park in Queens, shattering the bench she was resting on and killing her. The 6-month-old fetus did not survive. 
“The way I am experiencing it now, I want to go somewhere; I don’t know where,” Mr. Dikov, 20, said, standing in front of his parents’ apartment building, where the couple lived, the day after his wife was killed. “When I am in the car, I just keep driving. I feel like I’m going to go and meet her right now, and then we stop, and everything comes back to me.” 
Theirs was an unconventional relationship of immigrant experiences within divergent cultures. His family is from Bulgaria, nested in an apartment complex on Parsons Boulevard in Queens. She came from China and obtained a master’s degree in sports management from Ithaca College. After graduating, she worked a desk job at the Flushing Y.M.C.A. on Northern Boulevard.
On Sunday evening, Ms. Li-Dikov was strolling in Kissena Park. It was one of her favorite ways to pass the time. At some point, she sat on one of the many green benches. 
It is unclear why the tree fell. The New York City parks department has been the subject of lawsuits after several injuries and deaths caused by falling trees and limbs in recent years for failing to remove ailing trees. 
In an e-mail statement on Monday a spokesman for the parks department, Arthur Pincus, called the episode “a tragic accident.” According to the statement, the 70-year-old tree was 50 feet tall and snapped about 8 feet from the ground. 
That area of the park had been inspected as recently as June 20, according to the statement.

On Monday afternoon, Mr. Dikov ducked under yellow caution tape to the site of his wife’s death. The tree still lay across the splintered bench. His parents beside him, he laid flowers down while wearing his National Guard uniform. 
His sobs filled the air of the quiet park.

From the NYT first short version:
Earlier Sunday, a falling branch injured a woman at the Grover Cleveland Playground in Brooklyn, said Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, a group that tracks such cases. Her condition was not immediately known. 
The death and the injury on Sunday bring the number of people struck by falling trees and branches in the last eight weeks to 12, Mr. Croft said, including a woman who was seriously hurt when she was struck by a branch in Central Park in June.  In June 2010, a 6-month-old was killed in her mother’s arms when a branch fell on them near the Central Park Zoo.
In the next link, Mr. Croft describes the number of people injured by falling branches as "an epidemic".  I suspected that the tree was rotting - since as far as I can determine, they ALL are - but it wasn't obvious from that photo, so I googled for more images.  Sure enough, a closer view showed symptoms of interior rot - a hole, and the dark center in the broken branch:
The reporter on location for a television video of local news described the time of the incident as a "...still, almost windless afternoon.  Many pointed out other tree limbs that had fallen nearby."  She said the tree was "...seemingly sturdy"
I needn't have bothered to look for photographic evidence that the tree was unhealthy, because in another video from NBC network the reporter says, "Park crews cut down the rest of the fallen tree in Kissona Park, which experts say was rotten."

There is an annoying ad to sit through, but it's almost worth watching to see the politicians leap to take advantage of the tragedy, basically by declaring war on trees - the new terrorists.  One declares belligerently of Mayor Bloomberg's campaign to plant a million new trees in the city: "We shouldn't plant one new tree until we make sure that every existing safe".

(Trees are even being demonized for closing their stomata when it's hot, reducing the amount of pollution they absorb, thus making more people sick.  A Wit's End reader summed it up - "Slacker Trees" - ha!  The title at the National Geographic article is:  "Plants Blamed for Human Deaths in Heat Waves - A new study found that plants don’t absorb as much pollution when stressed.")

Meanwhile the Parks Department claims that area had been inspected six times this year already.  The problem they have, is that all the trees are in decline.  They are inured to the evidence, it is become so commonplace.

This week while walking in Willowwood, an arboretum nearby that I love, it suddenly occurred to me that it has been almost exactly five years, since August 2008, that I noticed all the trees are dying.  This anniversary seemed like some sort of milestone worthy of recognition, so I decided to search back in my emails, to see if I could determine exactly when and why I decided that a trend towards universal premature mortality was occurring.  It seems a lifetime ago, and I can scarcely remember.

I know that at first, that summer, I thought (hoped) it was a decline limited to deciduous trees, but in the autumn, the conifers began dropping a vast proportion of needles.  The earliest mention I can find in my email was from that August, in which I observed that all the trees seemed to be dying.  In September, I wrote to a friend in England that I had made a trip to Rhode Island and they were dying all the way up there too...and by October 2, I wrote that I had reached this conclusion, with some predictions that have since come to pass:

We are in the midst of an ecological collapse.

The trees are dying, it is more evident, literally, every day.  Today I drove from here past Doylestown [PA] and it is the same everywhere if you bother to actually LOOK and SEE.  With the loss of trees, all the plants and birds and mammals that live on/under/over or depend on them for food, will also die.

In the very short term, we are going to experience extremely long power outages as these huge dead trees (just wait for a hurricane!) knock over the powerlines.  Many houses, buildings and cars will be crushed.

You want to invest?  A money making opportunity?  Try:

tree felling and cutting, firefighting, home solar and/or gas/oil generators.

Wildfires are going to destroy farmland, exurbs and suburbs.

one good thing, it will finally be quiet.

Once I was convinced all species of trees are dying, I began to take pictures and mail them to every scientist, forester, nurseryman, and journalist I could find, trying to find out why.  This was one of the earliest, a pine tree in Willowwood.  Looking at it I almost wonder why I thought it was dying - it looks so healthy to me now!  But somehow even then I knew that it shouldn't be so transparent.
July 11, 2009
Over time I have continued to photograph it.  I honestly did not expect trees to last as long as they have.  Since then I have come to have even greater respect for their vast reserves of energy, their tenacious urge to survive for centuries and thousands of years, in even the most adverse conditions.
February, 2012
This year though, it went abruptly from dying to dead.  Here is is just three months ago:
May 9, 2013
Even I was shocked when I saw it this week:
Of course I could have done this series with any number of trees, since they are all following a similar path.  For relief I like to photograph birds and flowers.  Right now the pond has nine lotus buds, a record number despite the scorched leaves...and lately, there have been lots of butterflies, so pictures of them are going to break up the following text.  I also went to pick peaches at our lovely local peach orchard...
where I discovered, to my dismay, the paths are blocked by broken branches and the bark is oozing a fearsome sap.  But the peaches are luscious still.
Below is the earliest letter to scientists that I could find buried in my email.  Since then, with the evolving wonders of the internet, I have corresponded with many more, and read a whole library's worth of scientific papers.  At the time I wrote that letter I had been assuming it was climate change that was responsible for the tree decline, because I couldn't imagine there was any other influence that could be so widespread and pernicious.  Because of that I learned everything I could about climate change, enough to convince me that runaway amplifying feedbacks were going to cause mass extinctions, very soon.
There have been lots of yellow swallowtails - but almost all their wings are ripped and torn. 
But, it wasn't until the next summer, in 2009, when I saw that annual plants being watered in pots or in the ground, and even aquatic plants, exhibited the exact same symptoms of damaged foliage, that I realized drought from climate change couldn't account for all the poisoned vegetation.  And then I learned that ozone, even though it is invisible, is toxic...and spreads everywhere...and the background level is constantly rising. In 2008 I expected all the trees around here to be dead within five years.  Given the leaf drop that has commenced this summer, I think that is actually not so very far off the mark.
The hay field at the top of the hill above Wit's End
December 2008

Dear Scientists:

After much noodling around I came across Dr. Grissino-Mayer's website about tree rings, and links to you.  I discovered many of you are at a conference this week and so I hope you will take the time to consider my email later when you are not so busy.

Thank you all for your work and your links on the web to other information.

Recently I have written to various environmental groups and so far found, to my surprise, that even those whose mission is to preserve the environment are strangely oblivious to some immediate and recognizable effects of climate change and pollution.  Perhaps that is because there are so many impacts, such as coral reef bleaching and melting glaciers, that compete for scientific study and press attention.  However I think the wholesale demise of trees on the East coast should be of particular interest, since the consequences are likely to directly impact even elected officials who make US policy.  Not even the most privileged among us will be immune from the transformation to a treeless landscape.
As a non-scientist but observant naturalist, I believe we are on the brink of total ecological collapse - at least here where I live, in western NJ - and the states around here I have had occasion to visit recently, PA, NY, CT and RI.
I can find virtually no one who is interested in the fact that ALL the trees in this area are in decline.  At the current pace, within 2 to 5 years, there won't be a tree left alive.  In this part of the Eastern Seaboard, it's pretty obvious to me that the death of trees, whether coniferous or deciduous, old or young, is ubiquitous and crosses all boundaries to include every species.  In hindsight, since I have lived in the same wooded area for 30 years, I can see where this decline began at least a decade ago.  Until this year I attributed it to individual blights, and optimistically planted hundreds of trees on my farm.
These past few months however, it has became gradually and painfully clear to me that the decline is accelerating at a truly astonishing pace.  I can see lichens smothering tree trunks, spreading by the day.  Many pine trees are already utterly bare of needles and those that aren't are yellowing, thinning and covered with cones in a defiant attempt to reproduce.
What is causing this alarming decline?  It cannot be any one disease, pest, or fungus, because every single variety of tree is visibly suffering.  Having thought about this since last July, when leaves uniformly became shriveled, scorched or brown, I have come to the conclusion that the prolonged drought, and particularly the lack of snow cover in winter which should blanket and saturate the ground with water, must be responsible.
Of course, air pollution doesn't help either, and there are opportunistic parasites and invasive species.  But the underlying cause for such a universal impact upon trees ranging in age from 2 to 300 years must be global warming - which has led to a severe, long-term attendant dryness.  The NJ state DEP seems to prefer willful ignorance of this phenomenon and refuses to consider any drought indicators other than reservoir levels.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the inevitable consequences to accepting this premise, few seem willing to even ponder the staggering dimensions of a complete loss of trees.  Wildfires, loss of habitat for all dependent critters and plant species (including the destruction of stream life dependent on shaded banks), downed power lines with extended outages, crushed homes and commercial buildings and blocked roads - it seems no one will take notice until these events come to pass here on the east coast, as they have already been more obvious in the West (although still not often linked to global warming).
In the news just the past few days about the ice storm in New England, not one report I heard seems to have considered the idea that the trees are collapsing so badly because they are already weakened due to climate change.  Here in NJ, even without an ice storm, trees are toppling.  As a mushroom collector for over 30 years, I am sorry to report that the morels I have found in the same reliable spot were completely absent the last two seasons.  Another telling indicator is that here, in a very rural locale, rivers, hills, homes and other structures that were until this year shrouded by the woods, even in winter, are now plainly visible.
Also implicit is that the loss of trees will lead to feedback loops, making the climate ever hotter and even drier.  I fear that golf courses and long showers will be unattainable luxuries and we will be fortunate to have a cup of water with which to brush our teeth.  For my children, I dread the conflicts that will accompany scarce basic resources.

In attempting to communicate my concerns with various environmental groups I have frequently found that even they are in denial.  I suppose from their point of view, their own jobs are at stake - who would contribute funding to a conservation society whose mandate is to plants trees, if they admit we are in for desertification and the trees cannot thrive?  Nurserymen who you would expect to be aware also stand to lose their livelihood should they advise their customers not to waste money investing in planting trees - and even foresters won't have much of a future if there are no forests to study.
Nevertheless it dismays me that so few people will even acknowledge what is, quite frankly, obvious to anyone who bothers to actually see the evidence in plain view.  I wrote to two local newspapers about the issue - they didn't even run them as letters to the editor.  I believe if the scientific facts were made available (presuming they exist - I have found it difficult to find very recent studies of forest health, especially in language accessible to non-experts), the general citizenry would be far more receptive to fundamental change in politics as usual.
If there is any hope of averting a complete loss of biodiversity, and ultimately human civilization as we have had the privilege to know it, we really must stop kidding ourselves about the consequences of inaction.  It's too bad that it looks like people will not pay attention to this until literally, a tree falls on their house...if then.
I am writing to you, as scientists, hopeful that someone who has the appropriate credentials will make a serious, objective study of the trees in their current condition, and use the information (or at least, make it available) in an effort to reach the public and inspire a real effort to stop this tragedy in the making.  It's not that I think this particular aspect of climate change is by any means the worst the world will face.  Islands inundated by seawater are surely more terminal.

But I do think perhaps it might be an aspect that will bring the issue alive for the US electorate in a way that a more remote disaster will not.  Pretending that we have until 2050, as Thomas Friedman suggests, to fiddle around with emissions, is nothing but self-delusion.
So many have claimed they didn't see the economic collapse on the horizon.  There is a far more devastating collapse in our future.

I probably sound like a kook.  But I beg you, before you decide that, GO OUTSIDE and look at the trees.  Even in Manhattan on the West Side Highway, the trees on the median, miles of them, are desiccated.  Irrefutable evidence is not difficult to obtain.

Please let me know your thoughts on this subject if you have time.  I would be especially interested to be directed to any studies on this topic that have recent data.


Gail Zawacki
Midweek I ventured to a property acquired by the township as open space preservation, the Christie Hoffman Park.  When it was originally purchased it was just another old decrepit, neglected farm.  For a long time there was no signage, no paths or trails, just the weathered clapboard house and crumbling barns, the woods and abandoned cornfields and meadows, some gnarled apple trees and a brook.  Few people knew of its existence, so almost no one visited.  Even now it is largely empty unless the ball fields near the road are being used.  Further in, the only sound when I was there was from the rustling of leaves, the water surging over the rocks in the creek, and the songs of a few birds and insects.
To read in that peaceful setting without distraction (meaning, internet!), I brought along with me the xerox copy of an essay published in 1977, which was sent to me by a reader of Wit's End, who lives in Texas.  He has kept notebooks with articles about the environment he has been collecting, and this was the first.  I couldn't find a link to it on the internet so I wrote the author, John Elkington, to see if one exists.  It doesn't, so with his kind permission I retyped it to post it here.  It's simply astounding that what he wrote over three decades ago is so prescient and so comprehensive, that it could have been written today.  Indeed it is being written today, over and over again, in endless redundancy by more and more writers - though seldom with such skill.
~ John Elkington
 New Scientist 3 June 1977 
 The Reykjavik Imperative 
Delegates at the Second International Conference on the Environmental Future have acknowledged unanimously that there is a virtual certainty that the greatest human catastrophe in recorded history will occur in the lifetime of most of us 
If you want to housetrain a domestic animal, you rub its snout in its own excreta.  Man, we all know, is the self-domesticated animal.  I have no idea whether these thoughts occurred to the organisers of last week’s Second International Conference on the Environmental Future, when they accepted the invitation of Iceland’s Prime Minister and sited the Conference in Reykjavik.  But the choice was inspired.
Icelanders are among the most hospitable people I have met, but my first reaction on sighting their country was of of mild shock.  The country is a study in black and grey clinker.  Geologically, the island is young – probably less than 20 million years old.  The third largest island in the Atlantic Ocean, it literally erupts from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.  The erupted material is largely basaltic, deformed by vertical and horizontal movements in the surrounding ridge-rift zone.  Where exposed, the erupted masses have been moulded and weathered by erosion, glacial abrasion and frost action.
The statistics are striking.  Iceland’s total surface area is 103,000 square kilometres (England’s area is approximately 130,000 square kilometres).  Of this land surface, 11 per cent is covered by lavas, 12 percent by glaciers, 4 percent by sands and a further 50 percent by other wastelands.  As your plane banks in towards Keflavjk airport, you cannot help but be struck by the sheer nakedness of the landscape.  Extensive areas are desert or semi-desert, and the few small patches of woodland you see, typically birch, are found mainly in sheltered places in lowland valleys.
It is now believed that volcanic and glacial action must bear much of the responsibility for the present condition of Iceland’s vegetable landscape.  Large areas of Iceland, particularly the interior highland plateau, were bare long before man arrived.  So were large areas around the ice-caps, in front of glaciers and even in the lowlands themselves.  The upper limit of continuous vegetation is found at the relatively low average altitude of 700 metres, while the tree-line is at a mere 300 metres.
New lava flows and volcanic ash have covered considerable areas, killing or damaging vegetation, people, livestock and property.  Where volcanoes are covered with ice, their eruptions melt it and are accompanied by tremendous floods.  Peter Francis in high highly readable Volcanoes (Penguin Books, 1976) has pointed out that, while the Amazon has an estimated flow of 200,000 cubic metres per second, the flow of melt water during the 1918 Katla eruption was not less than 400,000 cubic metres per second.
Clearly, natural forces are not to be ignored in considering the Icelandic landscape.  However, the arrival of Norwegian settlers from AD 874 marks a distinct discontinuity in the island’s natural history.  Icelandic soils contain a low percentage of clay, have a weak structure in consequence, and are highly susceptible to erosion.  Furthermore, the Icelandic climate (while currently warmer than one might expect from its northerly position) is “cold-tempered oceanic”.  The result is a marked slowing of the physical, chemical and biological processes involved in soil formation and renewal.
Enter man.  An already somewhat unstable equilibrium, in which there were no herbivorous animals, was disrupted by the introduction of livestock – particularly sheep.  Over-grazing, wood cutting and forest fires devastated the birch woods, which once covered half of Iceland.  As the climate deteriorated, families and their servants huddled together into what little space they could keep heated with their own body warmth.  Outside, the removal of trees and scrub meant that easily eroded loessial soils began to disappear.  It is estimated that fully half the land below 400 metres which was previously covered by vegetation (some 20,000 square kilometres) is now more or less bare.
The pre-settlement flora and fauna were decimated.  Apart from polar bears arriving on drift-ice (and soon dispatched), the only land mammal prior to the settlement was the arctic fox.  Despite the efforts of sheep farmers to control its population, the arctic fox is still there.  But it has been joined by some of man’s less welcome camp-followers including four species of rodent – the long-tailed field mouse, the house mouse, the brown and the black rats.  More recent, and this time intentional, introductions include the reindeer and mink.  Reindeer were repeatedly introduced from Norway in the late 1700s and, despite early failures, now number some 3000.  The reindeer has had a relatively small impact on the landscape, however, which cannot be said for the mink.  Introduced for fur-farming in the 1930s, the mink soon escaped and established a breeding population.  You notice few birds of any sort in Iceland, and nesting birds are particularly rare.  There are few trees to nest in, and the mink get a high proportion of fledglings hatched on the ground.
And where does the Second International Conference on the Environmental Future (ICEF) fit into all this?  Whether by design or not, Iceland illustrates virtually all the problems discussed during the ICEF – it is, in effect, a microcosm of our harried planet.  The uncontrolled use of an unstable ecosystem has severely constrained the freedom of action of later generations.  But the original decision to site the ICEF in Reykjavik reflected Iceland’s neutrality.  The first ICEF was held in neutral Finland, and produced one of the major environmental books of the early 1970s.  This was The Environmental Future (Macmillan, 1972), edited by Professor Nicholas Polunin, whose idea the ICEFs were, and without whose energy and persistence it is questionable whether either would have happened at all.
The basic value of the two ICEFs to date has been in gathering together international ecologists and environmental scholars, enabling them to speak in conditions of some informality about the problems they have encountered in their work.  The Finland (Jyväskylä) ICEF was held in 1971, the year before the UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.  The intention was that the proceedings should provide an input to the 1972 deliberations of national governments.  But, as Professor Reid Bryson commented to me, events turned out rather differently.  Even in 1971, there were many people who feared that Stockholm would consist of “set pieces”, delivered from heavily-entrenched positions.  And, while 1972 did see the birth of something of a crusading spirit, the pessimists were not entirely disappointed.
The prevailing mood in the opening sessions of the Reykjavik ICEF was one of informed pessimism, a mood born of the frustrations on the intervening five years.  There were optimists, of course.  Mostafa Tolba, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (“the environmental conscience of the United Nations”), was foremost among these.  His paper reminded us that Earthwatch, “a dynamic process of integrated environmental assessment” is alive, well and on our side.  The most marked progress, he reported, has been achieved in the field of monitoring and information exchange – with the establishment of the Global Environmental Monitoring Systems (GEMS), the International Referral System (IRS) and the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC).
Development without destruction
Tolba reviewed some of the more pressing problems – including desertification, environmental cancers, the ozone debate and the “other energy crisis” (firewood).  UNEP’s success in the recent Mediterranean discussions, he argued, showed that development is possible without destruction – given the political will.  But, he warned:  “We should not delude ourselves:  that act of political will does not come easily because it implies very large changes in public attitudes and expectations.”  Anyone listening to the papers would have been impressed by the extent to which participants were not laboring under such a delusion.
Professor Gary Widman, urging the need for a harmonization of man’s law with natural laws, recounted to me his experiences on his first day as General (Legal) Counsel to the US Council on Environmental Quality.  His secretary met him with a copy of a motion before Congress to exclude all energy-related projects from the impact analysis procedures required by the National Environmental Policy Act (1969).  In the event, the motion was fought off.  But the director of environmental research for a major US metals mining company told me of the recent wave of bumper-stickers in New York with such messages as:  “If you are hungry and unemployed, eat an environmentalist!” Yet evidence of the instability of many of our stressed life-support systems is still coming in  - and was reviewed in a hard-hitting paper by Professor Eugene Odum and Dr. Eldon Franz.  Examples of the collapse of such life-support systems could be found but a few kilometres away.  The collapse of major Icelandic fish-stocks is a prime example of “The Tragedy of the Commons”.  Icelanders have a saying to the effect that Iceland is a rock in the middle of an ocean, surrounded by fish – take away the fish, and what have you got left?  The answer is proving very hard to find, and Britain’s record in the over-exploitation of the Icelandic fishing grounds is, to put it mildly, wretched.
But “ecodisasters” need not always be dramatic.  Relatively small changes in the global climate can have disproportionate impacts on man’s already over-taxed life support systems.  Professor Hermann Flohn reviewed recent climatic research, arguing that there is no room for optimism in a world in which many forests are becoming, for the first time in the Earth’s history, net producers of carbon dioxide (as they are felled or burned).  The “greenhouse effect”, he assured us, is still very much with us.  And Iceland, Reid Bryson pointed out, is in the core of a zone in which climatic changes reach their maximum amplitude.
leaves on the ground beneath the peach trees 
The ways in which social, cultural and ethical systems may control population growth and constrain consumption were vigorously debated.  Speaker after speaker supported Edward Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist, in arguing that it is the collapse of such regulatory mechanisms which are in large part responsible for our current plight.  Stanley Johnson, of the Commission of European Communities, gave us the latest demographic statistics.  The general flavor of his paper was by no means new, but none of us felt any the more comfortable for that.
Like many speakers, Johnson tried to find a “bright spot” in a rather dismal picture.  His was the so-called “revised theory of demographic transition”.  Professor Norman Uphoff, of Cornell University’s center for International Studies, has recently argued that “a number of Third World countries have already begun to reverse their rates of population at per capita income levels of $150, $200 or $300 – in conjunction with strategies of development that stress not so much the expansion of a modern industrial sector starting out with advanced technology, but rather the development of agriculture and rural areas”.
Population is often held to be the “developing” world’s problem although, as one speaker argued, countries like German, Japan and the US are developing far faster than anyone else.  Again, the Conference would not have had to look far for examples of the population explosion and rapid urbanization.  Iceland’s population has been subject, since the settlement, to almost inconceivable catastrophes.  The first census, in 1703, recorded 50,358 people – but, in 1707-79, smallpox took the lives of some 18,000.  Icelandic history records  a series of climatic changes (such as the “little ice age” in the 17th century), pestilences (bubonic plague) and volcanic eruptions, many of which have reduced the human population by one fifth or more.  Today, however, the population is over 200,000, and Reykjavik has grown from a village to a settlement of over 80,000 people.
Man as a climax species
Man has, in many senses, behaved like a “cyclic species”, with recurrent booms and crashes in population.  Iceland’s rock ptarmigan does precisely the same, although its cycle, at 10 years, is considerably shorter.  Dr. R. Fosberg, of the Smithsonian Institute, asked the question weighing on all our minds – can man learn to behave like a climax rather than a pioneer species?  The answer, not directly given in that session, must be that such a change would need profound changes in the attitudes and aspirations of people and politicians – something the Chinese have attempted, as many speakers agreed.  I kept thinking of Kafka’s story Metamorphosis, in which the hero wakes up a beetle.  It looks rather as if we will need to do something similar.
After last-minute redrafting by Professor Donald Kuenen (President of the IUCN) and Dr. Barton Worthington (who was Scientific Director of the International Biological Programme), the final resolutions of the ICEF are now being circulated under the title The Reykjavik Imperative on the Environment and Future of Mankind
“Governments,” it concludes, “as well as people, tend to concentrate on immediate problems.  It is unusual for a country to develop a 10 year plan, and unheard of to have a 100 year plan.”  Yet the unanimous conclusion of some 130 delegates from 20 countries was that there is now a high probability, almost a certainty, that the greatest human catastrophe of recorded history will occur in the lifetime of most of us.
Despite the prevailing pessimism, most delegates felt that there is still time to temper the impact of such a catastrophe – but agreed that the decisions which need to be made, the most important in human history, are in many cases not even being considered.  In a century which has seen both the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong, it is difficult to think in terms of limits.  We can all match the number of people we invite to a party to the space and food available, and few of us would attempt (as Elizabeth Dodson Gray put it) to seat a rhinoceros in an armchair.  Yet fewer still have an intuitive understanding of the notion of an ecosystem’s carrying capacity.  The imagery simply has not been developed – or, where developed, it has been lost or destroyed.  What we need is a few thousand Buckminster Fullers.  Illustrating the relative shallowness of the world ocean, he compared our planet to a steel ball the height of a man.  Breathe on the surface of the sphere, and your condensed breath represents the average depth of the oceans.  He told me that he is now talking to an average 1500 people every week.  It is not enough.
The morale of the ICEF had been revived in mid-week by a major paper given, in memory of Jean Baer and Julian Huxley, by Maurice Strong (first Executive Director of UNEP).  Recognising the continued need for development in the poorer countries of the world, he called for what he termed a “New Growth” – based on quality of life rather than quantity of consumer goods; on the use of human, rather than limited material resources; and on action at the local level – a view strongly supported, and by no means in isolation, by Dr. E.F. Schumacher in a later paper.
The Reykjavik Imperative is addressed to the advanced nations of the world.  It is our demands for raw materials which are destroying the indispensable tropical rain forests; it is our demand for foodstuffs from other areas of the world which contributes most directly to this global “Tragedy of the Commons”; and it is we, by setting an example, who must grasp the nettle and make the necessary decisions.  No longer can we abdicate responsibility to UNEP, to the EEC or even to our own environmental “superministries”.  Ecologists must, and increasingly do, recognize that they are political animals.  A lone voice complained that this meeting of scientists was going out on a limb.  But, if that is where we must be, then far better to get out on to it before it drops off.
The Chinese model of development was much discussed, and Professor Kenneth Hare, in his admirable summing-up, asked another question which stalked the ICEF: Can Democratic governments cope?  The answer, on present performance, is that they cannot.  Decisions are taken when no option remains.  Freedoms are progressively eroded, and social energies progressively stifled rather than developed.  In order to achieve an ecologically viable society, the politicians would have to dismantle our Western “cargo cult’, the cult of endless economic growth.
The ICEF was not against technology.  Indeed, examples were given of the way in which industry can involve itself (often at a profit) in good housekeeping.  The World Bank’s recent decision to require environmental impact analysis for all aided development projects was warmly endorsed, with the single reservation that all projects, whether grant-aided or not, should be studied.  Where produced, such impact statements should be used – rather than serving as mere ritual to pacify an environmental priesthood.  The hand of the ICEF’s President, Professor Linus Pauling, was clearly visible in the drafting of the resolution deploring world militarism.  The suggestion was also made, and carried, that peacetime military activities and processes be subject to environmental impact analysis.
A practical suggestion endorsed by the ICEF was that a tax of 1 percent per barrel of oil be imposed, and the proceeds ploughed into environmental action which will benefit Mankind in the long-term – a proposal, incidentally, originating from Saudi Arabia.  In disbanding, the ICEF resolved to prepare for a major counter-blast to the proposed UN Conference on science and Technology in Development, to be held in 1979.  Preparations are also already under way for a third ICEF in a developing country to pursue the theme:  What do we do when the oil runs out?  A major effort will be made to ensure that industrialists, engineers and others involved in the development process are present.  Meanwhile, our recent hosts remain highly vulnerable to economic, ecological and climatic change.  Julian Huxley wrote that Iceland is on the margin of the habitable word.  “But then,” our own Nicholas Guppy reminded us, “so is the rest of the world.”

When I wrote to Mr. Elkington to thank him for helping me to understand more fully how futile it is to presume that humans will ever change their spots (like the leopard they are quite incapable), I'm afraid he was a bit dismayed by my interpretation.  First, he had asked me why I was taking the trouble to transcribe his article from so long ago, and I answered:
Well, I want to incorporate it into a blog post.  I had a little epiphany the other day, at an arboretum near my house where I had gone for a walk.  I realized that it's been almost exactly 5 years since I realized our species is about to, as you so delicately began your article, rub its own snout in its own excreta.  I came a little late to the party compared to people like yourself who have been aware of this trend for decades, but from the moment my mind opened and I saw with a rush of clarity what we are doing to the planet, and how fast, all the implications followed quickly thereafter - chief among them, that the three daughters I so foolishly brought into this world are pretty much guaranteed to die prematurely, and likely not until after being tortured by cannibals.
Since then I've met many people (of the tiny percentage) who know that "progress" is a myth.  Most of them learn this by becoming [cognizant] about climate, or peak oil, or habitat destruction or overpopulation.  What woke me up was the sudden realization that trees are in rapid die-off.  Trying to discover why led me to learn about all the other aspects of overshoot.
Anyway, now that I've had five years of trying to understand what about our species makes us so stupid and shortsighted, and five years of demonstrating and being arrested at Occupy and shutting down coal mines and blogging, and crying and cursing, I've kind of come to the conclusion (several times) that this was all fore-ordained because it's simply in our nature to foul our nest without care about the consequences until it's too late, which it now is on a global scale.
Coincidentally, the next day someone I've never met who lives in Texas and reads my blog mailed me your article, which he has had preserved in his file of collapse news lo these many years.  When I read it I thought, ah ha.  People knew this without a doubt when I was still a high school student, and yet nothing has changed other than things have gotten worse; and the ecologists and climate scientists and activists continue to blather on and study things as though we need to know more.
I already realized this of course - for the longest time, I've thought if anyone is to be blamed it's Prometheus.  I think it was the discovery that we could control fire that set us outside of Nature, allowing us to cook food, chew less, grow bigger brains, and become convinced we are so special that we can conquer natural limits.
Your article marks a moment in my own personal journey where I have decided that I'm not going to worry about the future anymore.  I can't say I'll stop grieving completely, or never feel horribly guilty, but I'm going to stop living in fear of all we have lost (or more precisely, thrown away) and try to spend the rest of my days just being happy for what remains.
He replied:

"That sounds a bit like someone snuggling down warmly in their deckchair on the Titanic, Gail, which wasn't exactly the purpose of the piece - but these things take people in various ways ..."
I wonder if he realized the irony embedded in his last message after he sent it.  He chose the analogy to the Titanic - a metaphor for unavoidable doom if there ever was one.  So, if you accept the fact that you are a passenger on the Titanic, what IS the correct reaction?  Isn't snuggling down warmly in the deckchair a reasonable thing to do?  What's the point of doing anything else?  Should you fight tooth and nail to be one of the few that makes it to a lifeboat?  Since the entire earth is now the Titanic, what purpose would that serve since there is nowhere to row to, and no rescue ships to pick you up?
Searching for a link to The Reykjavik Imperative led to only one obscure reference, linking to an early meeting of the International Association for Ecology.  For me reading about their upcoming conference only compounded the absurdity of an utterly obsolete endeavor - researching the collapse of life on earth.  Yes, starting on the 19th of this month, the IAE will host a meeting in London.  According to their brochure for the 11th annual Congress of Ecology, grandly called "Advancing Ecology and Making it Count", there will be eleven plenary speakers including Jane Lubchenko of NOAA, and nearly 50 symposia over the week to the 23rd of the month.  This international gathering is combined with the British Ecological Society's meeting optimistically titled "Ecology - Into the Next 100 Years".
Here is a random sampling of topics:

Maintaining top predator populations in the 22nd century; 
Long term urban ecological studies: linking pattern, process and ecosystem services towards sustainable cities;
Light pollution in an urbanised world: ecological and evolutionary consequences; 
Natural forest succession in the tropics - lessons and implications for tropical forest restoration; 
Plant functional ecology and vegetation modelling in a new data rich world; [and my favorite...
Forest resilience, tipping points and global change processes.

Seriously, according to a news release, from the AlphaGalileo Foundation, 2,000 people from 67 countries are going to attend, where they can go to "A session dedicated to citizen science, showcasing how new technology from mobile phone apps to social networking can generate valuable ecological data to tackle major new threats such as ash dieback".  Perhaps no one who is boarding a plane for this boongoggle noticed at their website this photo of the dying trees in the Chamela Forest Reserve of Mexico:
A comment at Nature Bat's Last echoed a common refrain:

“In short, our problem is how to wrest power from this oppressive and insane elite.”

I with answered the following, and haven't really seen much response so far:
I’m curious. Let’s suppose “we” wrest power from the oppressive and insane elite. Since there are seven billion people on the planet, and most of them more than happy to be led down the garden path with blatant lies, what would prevent the oppressive and insane elite from being replaced with other oppressive and insane elites? It seems to be that those positions of power are fungible, there for the taking by the most ruthless among us.
The point is, the outcome – extinction – is and always was inevitable. Thus, blaming white guys or capitalism is just another form of denial, or bargaining, with death and meaninglessness – it’s a way of asserting that if only we remained matrilineal hunter-gatherers, we could have remained in that paradise that was formed in the millions of years of evolution before we popped up.
Whether you want to subscribe to the physics of entropy, or just examine our biological link to warring tribes of chimpanzees, the outcome is the same – ultimately, a global collapse. So “blaming” is irrelevant, unless you just want to believe that we are capable of rising above the behavior that is etched in our genes.
I’m interested in thoughts about what was brought up in the last thread – the moral imperative of collapsing industrial civilization. Of course, it’s going to collapse on its own sooner or later. But is there really a benefit in having it collapse sooner? What will happen when it collapses? Would it really save more species from extinction?
If you have the notion that we’re in for runaway Venus-effect warming (even the small version), then ultimately it doesn’t matter because nothing will be left, eventually.
But leaving that aside, what will happen when collapse occurs, and will that really benefit other species?  I have to wonder, because of the nuclear issues KathyC brings up [400+ plants melting down without the grid to cool them], but also, what will people do when the lights go off and they can’t get gasoline for their cars and they have no food or water, when the toilets back up and it’s hot as Hades without the aerosol cooling?
There will be wars – could be global, nuclear wars – and certainly more localized violence. Whatever protections are in place will be unenforced, so fishing, hunting, and chopping down trees will become rampant and will continue until either everyone dies from disease and war or radiation – or all the fish and animals and trees are gone, and then anyone left dies of starvation.
I’ve seen video in North Korea of people sifting through dirt looking for worms to eat. So, if someone like Deep Green Resistance were capable of bringing down IndCiv sooner rather than later, what would be the benefit of that?
If there’s no benefit, isn’t it better to continue BAU and buy time? Is the plan to bring down IndCiv just a romantic ideal to keep us busy and pretend that we’re doing something noble while trashing the planet?
Paul Kingsnorth has expressed so much better than I ever possibly could the ineffectual, hopeless, and colossal failure of the environmental movement, and the strategic disaster of a single-minded obsession with climate change from CO2, when he wrote Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist last year.  I posted it at the time, and now see that shortly thereafter he also penned an equally compelling exposition on his original essay, in response to criticism from Wen Stephenson, a climate change activist.  So here, in the spirit of my resolution to also "walk away", are his further ruminations (and within it there are even more links worth perusal, to both sides of what became a fascinating conversation in cyberspace).  What follows is by Paul Kingsnorth:
From: Paul Kingsnorth
To: Wen Stephenson

Dear Wen,

Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.
But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals – because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.

This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.
I’d like to start this response with your very last line. Here it is:

‘Unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.’
This is an interesting statement for this reason: that it elides modern human civilisation and the living planet. They are not the same thing. They are very far from being the same thing; in fact, one of them is allergic to the other. If we don’t start to realise this — really get it, at a deep level — there will be no change worth having for anyone.
I have spent twenty years and more as an environmental campaigner. My feeling, my philosophy, if you like, across that whole period has been rather different to yours, and rather different also to that of Tim DeChristopher, who you mention in your e-mail, remarkable though his current stand is. My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position – it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends. That is a moral position, for me, not a pragmatic one. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.
You might find that an odd position, or even a dangerous one, but I see it as quite cogent and rational. The fact is that ‘pumping carbon into the atmosphere’ will not cause ‘the end of the world’. The world has endured worse. It has endured five mass extinctions and half a dozen major climate change events. I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to. Perhaps it’s the Holocene: the period of the planet’s history in which homo sapiens sapiens (cough) was able to build a civilisation so extensive and powerful that it energetically wiped out much non-human life in order to feed its ever-advancing appetites.
‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat. I have two problems with this. Firstly, I am not convinced it is a good idea! To put it mildly. The modern human economy is an engine of mass destruction. Its ravaging of all non-human life is not incidental; it seems to be a requirement of the program. Economic growth of the kind worshipped by our leaders could be described as a process of turning life into death for money. With nine billion humans demanding access to the spoils, there is not going to be much life left to go around. Of course, I am conflicted about this. I live at the heart of this machine; like you, I am a beneficiary of it. If it falls apart, I will probably suffer, and I don’t want to.
But I do feel the need to be honest with myself, which is where the ‘walking away’ comes in. I am trying to walk away from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going. The journey I am on is intellectual and, perhaps, spiritual too. I’m not sure I will find any answers. Certainly I won’t come up with any better ways to ‘save the world.’ But what world are you saving, Wen, and why? Do you imagine that Thoreau would have looked out of that window at this Machine and determined to put all his efforts into marching about trying to keep it afloat? I think he would have kept on growing beans. His retreat from activism, after all, produced the words which now inspire yours.
I sense in your response a lot of the confusion, and the passion, that drove me for many years (I am still both passionate and confused, of course, though perhaps for different reasons.) There is a plaintive quality to your questions. ‘Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems?’ you ask. ‘Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?’ The answer to the first question is, of course, no, and the Dark Mountain Project has no such end in mind. Art and storytelling are worthy in their own right, and we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it ‘development’.
But as for the ‘transformation of our energy systems’: the minute you ask this question in this way, you are trapped in a paradigm, with no hope of escape. What are ‘our energy systems’ for? Who is us? Us, I’d guess, is the bourgeois consumer class of the ‘developed’ world, and ‘our energy systems’ are needed to provide us with our cars, planes, central heating, Twitter feeds, ambulances, schools, asphalt roads and shopping malls. How are we going to transform these systems, in short order, globally, busting through economic vested interests and political stalemate and cultural patterns, in less than 100 months, to prevent more than a 2 degree climate change? How, in other words, are we going to change the operating system of the entire global economy in a decade or so?
Answer: we’re not, though we’ll do a lot of damage trying, not least to much of the natural world we want to protect. I notice that a US-government backed plan to cover much of the Mojave desert in solar panels is currently running up against resistance from both conservationists and Native Americans; and let’s not even get started on the battles over carpeting vast areas of mountain, rangeland and countryside with giant wind power stations. This new world of yours is beginning to look a lot like the old one: business-as-usual without the carbon. The beast must be fed; the only question is what it will eat.
As for the climate movement which you believe is necessary to prevent this: well … I know I am beginning to sound cynical, but it’s not exactly cynicism, it’s a raw realism born of 20 years of wanting to believe in such movements and not seeing them. There is no ‘climate movement’.
Sure, there are a few thousand people who may take to the streets in the wealthy West, or on the odd threatened atoll, and there are many more people who, when asked in opinion polls, will say they want to stop climate change. But how many of these people will be taking to the streets to demand personal carbon budgets? How many of them will be taking to the streets to demand much higher gas prices, limits on their holiday aeroplane flights and their daily electricity use, and radical reductions in their ability and right to consume at will? And how many of the two thirds of the planet not living in the rich world will be taking to their streets to demand that they do not have access to the consumer cornucopia that we have, and which we are using so effectively to destroy non-human life without even really noticing?
I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ’1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. Here I am writing to you on a laptop computer made of aluminium and plastic and rare earth metals, about to send you this e-mail via undersea cables using as electricity created by the burning of long-dead deposits of fossilised carbon. I am climate change. You are climate change. Our culture is climate change. And climate change itself is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, if you’ll pardon the terrible but appropriate pun. If we were to wake up tomorrow to the news that climate change were a hoax or a huge mistake, we would still be living in a world in which extinction rates were between 100 and 1000 times natural levels and in which we have managed to destroy 25% of the world’s wildlife in the last four decades alone.
I’m afraid my current beliefs are going to seem to you rather bleak. I believe that our civilisation is hitting a wall, as all civilisations eventually do. I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it. I think we have created an industrial techno-bubble which has cut us off from the rest of nature so effectively that we cannot see, and do not much care about, its ongoing death. I think that until that death starts to impact us personally we will take very little interest. I think we are committed to much more of it over the next century. I fear for what my children will experience and sometimes I wish I was not here to experience it either. I am not yet 40 but I have seen things that my children will never see, because they are already gone. This is my fault, and yours, and there is nothing that we have been able to work out that will stop it.
How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it, Wen, because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. What do we do? I don’t know. The reality is that we have used the short-term boost of fossil fuels to give us a 200 year party, which is now coming to an end in a haze of broken bottles, hangovers and recrimination. We have built a hugely complex society which now can’t be fuelled and is, in any case, responsible for a global ecocide. Living with this reality — living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle — seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realise that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking.
Sometimes people say to me: ‘But you have children! How can you say all this? Don’t you want a better world for them?’ Other people say other things to me, things like: ‘We know this might not work, we know it’s a long shot — but it’s better than doing nothing! It’s better than giving up!’ I find this kind of thing very telling, because what is actually being said is: ‘doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the something being done is ineffective and powered by wishful thinking!’ I don’t agree. Sometimes, I think stepping back to evaluate is a lot more useful than keeping on for the sake of keeping on.
I don’t want to sound like a nihilist. There are a lot of useful things that we can do at this stage in history. Protecting biodiversity seems the crucial one. Protecting non-human nature from more destruction by the Machine, for example. Some of the best projects I know of creating islands and corridors of wild nature and trying to keep them free from our exploitation. Standing up in whatever small way we can to protect beauty and wildness from our appetites is a worthy cause if ever there was one: probably the most vital cause right now, I’d say. I’m all for fighting winnable battles. But we need to do so in the context of a wider, bigger picture: the end of the Holocene, the end of the world we were taught to believe was eternal; and, perhaps, the slow end of our belief that humans are in control of nature, can be or should be. You asked me about hope for the future: the thought that the disaster we have created may help us see ourselves for what we are — animals — and not what we believe we are — gods — gives me a kind of hope.
There is much that is noble about being human, but we have a big debt to pay back, and debts, in the end, always have to be paid.

All the best,


While I was walking through the orchard, I could see white granules scattered everywhere on the soil.  The only way commercial agricultural production feeds the billions is due to the application of massive amounts of systemic insecticides and fungicides and fertilizers.  It's a little sickening to think that this beautiful fruit is laden with carcinogenic toxins.  In contrast, at Willowwood there are dozens of cultivars of fruiting trees, but they are not grown for the market and so don't receive the extensive treatment regime, if any at all.  This means a pretty good idea can be obtained there of what sort of food supply we would have without the chemicals - and how essential it is for farmers to ward off biotic attacks, which are made lethal because the trees have been stripped of immunity by exposure to pollution.  In case you didn't know, the Florida citrus industry is about to be wiped out of existence, and California won't be far behind.  Following are photos of the flowering quince at Willowwood.  The fruit should get to be about the size of the largest apple, but these are getting no larger than about the size of a walnut before they start getting black spots. 
Next they become scarred.
Along comes this exotic orange fungal growth.
It consumes the fruit.
Eventually the chemicals will stop being effective, as has happened in Florida.
They will also become incredibly expensive since they are petroleum-based.
If you ask me, there is a distinct possibility that famine because of pollution will lead to collapse before climate change - but other than idle curiosity, I think it's better not to be overly concerned about which catastrophe prevails first.  Enjoy your peaches.
I have no idea what playstation is all about, but there is no doubt in my mind that this advertisement is a better prediction for the future than all the research papers at the Ecology conference put together, and the hubristic attitude espoused is the answer to all the questions about how and why humans are destroying our home just as fast as we are able.  Aptly titled, "Greatness Awaits":


  1. I'm still wondering about the psychological effects of very low levels (far from lethal) of ozone and methane, since we're all breathing more of these substances than we used to and are likely to be breathing even more in the future.
    When do chemicals that occur naturally in trace amounts become atmospheric pollution?
    PK's links are interesting.

    Your mentioning of falling trees is timely, this in today's paper:

    1. Catman every time I see another story about someone being hurt by falling trees and branches I just feel so sick. How can people not remember that trees didn't used to do that? I never heard of it until just a few years ago.

  2. I keep hearing that there has been a "pause" in the warming and yet they say the ice has continued to melt. Is there some breakdown in communication here. The melting of X cubic kilometers of ice requires X amount of heat. I can’t see how the ice would melt if there wasn’t more heat being added to the system. What mental and linguistic acrobatics are required to conclude that there has been no warming for the past decade. When the glacier has retreated a hundred yards up the valley can we possibly conclude that there has been anything other than more heat in that local? ....Just wondering.
    I can’t thank you enough for educating me to the ozone situation. I saw something about “dying trees”, (I think on Xray Mike) and that lead me to Wit’s End. With my berry farm and the shade vine projects, I was pretty much immersed in photosynthetic systems. The big Oak trees that shade the place are dying and the plants are no longer doing what they have done for the past twenty years and I had no idea what was happening other than that “the ship was sinking”. Farming has always had it’s risks’ (who would be stupid enough to bet a years labor on the weather?) but I was beginning to feel like I was “betting on a horse with a broken leg”. I couldn’t find anything that would make sense of it all until I read your stuff on ozone and plants. What a relief.
    What a relief to go to Wit’s End and encounter some sanity in this insane world. How can anyone look at our current situation and not see that it leads to torture by cannibals? Our genetic material is a history of successful response. The people that are here today are the offspring of people who didn’t just lay down and die when food got scarce. I envision this scene where mama says, ”John, these kids are hungry. They’re starving. Now you take that fancy deer rifle you got and go out there and bring back some meat and I won’t ask what it is or where you got it”. Or something like that.
    And you keep saying “I’m not a scientist”. Scientist is as scientist does. Most of these phony assed university types that have science degrees are doing science styled marketing. What you do is science.
    And thanks again. And I’m not convinced that you are just one person doing all this research and publishing. Easier to believe a staff of four or five doing all this but what do I know.
    So now I’m unretired and went back to being a maintenance man. I love working on the farm and daydreaming about the space between the galaxies, but it takes some income to keep the old heart beating right.
    We sure live in interesting times.

    1. Here's a site with plenty of videos that will explain where the heat has been going. (into the depths of the oceans)

    2. Yes thanks Catman. The earth is still warming - taking in more energy from the sun than it is releasing - but the energy is going into the oceans (and melting ice!).

  3. catman: if I may answer your question: as methane, ozone and hydrogen sulfide increase in atmospheric concentration it's not only psychological effects but actual PHYSICAL results like cannibalistic tendencies and outright death will become ever more evident.

    see here,


  4. Greatness awaits! That attitude has propelled civilization for millennia. It's not about to change, especially since technological humans can now hide in virtual worlds of instant communications, super powers and impossible physics as the natural world outside deteriorates. The conceit that we can miraculously compensate for our insatiable appetites with permaculture, electric cars, geo-engineering or wind turbines is the same conceit that dared to tamper with the power of the atom and fly men to the moon. We are as gods! It's the human tragedy. Perhaps the best response is to laugh at the absurdity of our incurable folly and get on with living as best we can until crushed by falling trees or drowned by the rising sea. The Earth will go on with or without us until the dying Sun consumes it, but there are plenty of other suns. Go out tonight, watch for the Perseids and try to count the stars. True greatness is beyond our comprehension.

    Thanks for keeping your eyes open and sharing what you see, Gail.

  5. Gail says: I with answered the following, and haven't really seen much response so far:....what would prevent the oppressive and insane elite from being replaced with other oppressive and insane elites?

    The ranked primate social mold
    Is by nature controlled by the bold,
    And the humans cajoled
    Are mostly consoled
    With fantasies which they are told.

  6. Right you are, Gail.
    The same fossil fuel pollution that poisons trees is also kills the climate. But I believe that rather than two hundred years of fossil fuel use, it has only been the last fifty to sixty years of American car culture that this crisis has spiraled dangerously out of control.
    While living in Santa Barbara, California, I saw many of the same problems that you see in WitsEnd New Jersey. Six or seven years ago I noticed with alarm sky around me was now gray-pink and gauzy looking. Then, a couple of years later, I saw that black soot dust now covered every inch of landscape. After that, trees, leaves, fruit, and fronds were discoloring and dying, and sturdy outdoor paints were blistering or dissolving. All of this was happening to some degree in every part of Santa Barbara, USA.
    Like any alert citizen, I notified city, state, and federal authorities, and some media of all this. They all had a reason or excuse to allow things to continue.
    Take a look at some graphic photo evidence at:

    Possibly, the fossil fuel induced collapse of America will take place in a West to East cascade following the jet stream.
    The only sane thing for us to do is mandate an immediate thirty percent reduction of fossil fuel consumption which could be accomplished with the elimination of gross polluting vehicles, power garden tools, recreational pollution, and things of that sort.
    That effort may invite civil unrest because millions of us would have to find alternate, but survivable ways of existence. Many of us have given ourselves, or have been given permission, for many decades, to recklessly and murderously pollute ourselves and our communities.
    That first thirty percent reduction only buys us time to find ways to reduce consumption and emissions by another thirty percent.
    If we don’t do these things very quickly we will have nothing but a horrid and gruesome future ahead of us. The only way civil government will respond effectively is if enough citizens demand these things of themselves and of the government.
    However late it is, in this air pollution climate crisis, we must now take actions for our survival. It's up to us.
    Thanks, Gail, for gallantly and honorably keeping us informed.
    David Lange

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. In defense of Wen, he's a great guy. He gave up a lucrative journalism job to freelance on climate issues, because, once he realized what was happening, he couldn't do otherwise, morally and ethically. He has young children. He only recently appeared on the scene, in the planning stages of the Sept. 24, 2011 event. Due to his connections, journalistic skills, and enthusiasm, he quickly ascended to the elite of climate activists.

    Perhaps he ascended too quickly, as he is still in the early stages of awareness, when one still envisions that it's possible to change the world. He is really not in a position to be analyzed and critiqued yet in his innocence. Only after exhaustive efforts and study, do we become so jaded that we are finally given the gift of seeing the reality, the whole picture.

    Wen's a breath of fresh air, a breath of hope. Sometimes, even in our doom, that's refreshing.

  9. Mossy, I wasn't knocking Wen, there's no need to defend him! I linked to his website, and encouraged people to read both sides because:

    "...within it there are even more links worth perusal, TO BOTH SIDES of what became a fascinating conversation in cyberspace."!

  10. Oh, I know you weren't knocking Wen. I just think that Paul was a little hard on him. Wen's just a novice in this whole affair, after all!


Blog Archive

My Blog List

Search This Blog