Sunday, December 21, 2014

Homo eradicatus

Season's Greetings - Merry Christmas, Super Solstice, Happy New Year etc - all fellow ruthless, insatiable members of our species Homo eradicatus who are watching the approach of the gathering storm!  As usual I have been collecting links to emerging science about ozone poisoning forests, but that topic will have to wait until after the family festivities.
After I hit "publish" it will be full-out baking and decorating. This post will just note that massive tree declines have been detected by NASA in the Amazon, and scientists are pointing to deforestation as a primary reason that debilitating droughts ensue.  Yes - science now affirms that this is how we have created deserts throughout history.
If you are looking for a movie to watch over the holidays, I highly recommend Belle (assuming you haven't seen it already).  I initially rented it because I love the escapism of a good historical costume drama, but it turned out to be much more than that - the tale delineates the distinctions of class, sex, race and marital politics of the day.  Based on a true story, it follows the struggles of the child of a slave who is raised by her wealthy relations in England.  Her impish intelligence shines through in this astonishingly lovely contemporary portrait with her more privileged white cousin who, in no small irony, winds up as much a prisoner of her gender as Belle is of her race.
It also, primarily, involves the passionate debate over slavery that dominated the times, revolving around the complex court case, presided over by Belle's conflicted guardian, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield.  The insurance company has refused to pay damages following the infamous massacre of the ship Zong about which, I am ashamed to say, I had never heard of before - even though The Slave Ship, a painting which immortalizes the event by J.M.W. Turner, hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts - so I know I must have seen it.  A high resolution view can be found here and packs a astonishingly powerful, visceral punch with incredible delicacy and subtlety.

There is romance in the movie too but, above all, it resonates with a complexity that is lost in the vacuous anti-civilization posturing that passes for historical analysis in too many corners of the internet and alternative media today.

Along these lines, I watched the following quick excerpt from a talk by Derrick Jensen, which is compelling and heartfelt, but (in my opinion) fundamentally flawed:

My comment was - He's right - it is a failure of imagination. The problem that he is missing is that most people can't help it - they LITERALLY can't imagine a world without a living biosphere, because (with the exception of the clinically depressed aka mutants) the human brain neurologically just doesn't work that way.  So unless there is some way to magically evolve the human brain to be different than it is - maybe another 500,000 years or so - Homo eradicatus is trapped in an unsolvable, intractable dilemma.  The research discussed in an article winningly titled Your Brain Won't Allow You To Believe the Apocalypse Could Actually Happen -  is only one of many neurological studies that demonstrate the rigidity of human behavioral attributes, and observes the results of both experiments and MRI studies:

"...this human propensity toward optimism is facilitated by the brain's failure to code errors in estimation when those call for pessimistic updates. This failure results in selective updating, which supports unrealistic optimism that is resistant to change."

Humans seem to have a propensity towards one sort of imagination - that which is optimistic and hopeful. This has some felicitous results - who would try to invent something new if they didn't think they would succeed? But it also is the power that has enabled our species to colonize the earth - who would pick up their wife and kids and put them on a covered wagon or a canoe and set off into the complete unknown if they didn't have a near fanatical belief that they would find better circumstances over the horizon? Perhaps this has over time selected the optimism/hopeful trait, as those are the explorers - and survivors.

"The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory", a book by Cynthia Eller skewers the WooWoo proponents of that particular fairytale on much the same grounds.  She explains "...why an invented past won't give women a future" which, like the equally popular myth of the noble, sustainable hunter-gatherer tribe, is an insidious hope that interferes with a rational assessment of our predicament.

She writes of how, starting in the 1970’s, the myth began to dominate the cultural mainstream in the following decades, and of how these fictional societies were proposed to be “…not crude reversals of patriarchal power, but models of ease, leniency, harmony with nature, and significantly, sex egalitarianism”.

How well I can relate to her confession!

“…I had no trouble appreciating the myth’s appeal.  Except for one small problem - and one much larger problem - I might now be writing a book titled Matriarchal Prehistory:  Our Glorious Past and Our Hope for the Future.  But if I was intrigued with the newness and power of the myth, and with its bold gender reversals, I was at least as impressed by the fact that anyone took it seriously as history.  Poking holes in the ‘evidence’ for this myth was, to rely on cliché, like shooting fish in a barrel.  After a long day of research in the library, I could go out with friends and entertain them with the latest argument I’d read for matriarchal prehistory, made up entirely - I pointed out - of a highly ideological reading of a couple of prehistoric artifacts accompanied by some dubious anthropology, perhaps a little astrology, and a fatuous premise…or two or three”.

I find myself in a position similar to what she describes as to why she bothers to dispel the fantasies:  “For certainly there are other myths that I have never felt driven to dispute:  White lotus flowers blossomed in the footsteps of the newly born Hakyamuni? …Truth claims seem beside the point to me: what matters is why the story is told, the uses to which it is put and by whom.”

Just as I would never bother to argue with a devout Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist over their faith (I long ago gave up arguing with climate deniers, and nowadays don't often bother with chemtrailers even though they, at least, are cognizant that trees are dying), still, I too frequently feel compelled to dispel the myth of sustainable hunter gathers - because perpetuating that fantasy ensures we will never accurately examine and assess our behavior, our prospects, our alternatives - honestly.  See what Jensen says in another short clip about our species:

An impassioned spokesman for the theory of a peaceful, sustainable culture of hunter-gathers, he asserts - against vast evidence of perpetual warfare and slavery; and ubiquitous habitat and species destruction chronically followed by sequential collapse - that humans lived in harmony with nature for many thousands of years.  He assigns blame for the current pattern exclusively to recent industrialization and a culture of materialism, despite a plethora of relics of the importance of status as displayed by personal possessions - whether shells or feathers or gold trinkets.  Aside from the utterly relentless colonizing of even the most marginal habitat of the entire earth going back to the exact timeframe he cites - in itself enough evidence that humans are not and never have been "sustainable" as we eradicated habitat, burning and slashing ruthlessly through verdant, pristine paradises in merciless pursuit of meat - the extirpation of the megafauna by the first arrivals in every new location is now only disputed by true believers...the evidence has become so overwhelming.

One of the best discussions I have found on this topic is available to read for free on-line at - Speak Out About Endangered Species, by Baz Edmeades.  I won't post any excerpts, because it's brilliant, and anybody who cares about this topic should read it.  Or, if it is too long (although it is tremendously well-written) you could instead cut to the chase with a very amusing short column in, of all places, the Havana Times, titled The Myth of a "Sustainable Primitive Community" in Cuba (even still the locus of farming sustainability myths) which chronicles the demise of indigenous creatures that went into the cooking pot of the first immigrants to arrive on the island 6,000 years the Ornimegalonyx, at one meter in height believed to be the largest species of owl that ever existed (among many others forever lost).

This first film, a visually stunning time-lapse sequence, is a splendid example of our optimistic, powerful imagination at work...a city - sanitized, glorious, almost a sacred monument to man's ingenuity.  It is followed by a far more depressing, and I would say realistic, version of our contribution to earth today that left me in tears, even though I should know better by now.

Cityscape Chicago II from Eric Hines on Vimeo.

Many thanks to David Lange, Jenelle Green, David Veith and other friends both facebook and otherwise, who enrich my life by diligently sharing many of these wonderful links to videos, articles, and research.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

All About Us

In this post are screenshots and notes I made from a lecture by James White of INSTAAR, U Colorado Boulder, given last week at the annual meeting of the AGU (American Geophysical Union) in San Francisco.  Anyone can see it, for free, although it requires jumping through some hoops to register.  Here is the link I used to access it - you can try to login as me (email, password agupass1) or register yourself and search for James White in "Virtual Options" at the conference home site.  It is well worth persistence to see.

[update, 2/12 - the video is up on youtube here.  Alex Smith interviewed Dr. White here.]

The title refers to his recent study, "Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change:  Anticipating Surprises" that was co-authored by numerous scientists and published by the US National Academy of Science (free download here).  He begins by defining aspects of "abrupt" as, among other perimeters, occurring within the lifespan of a human - since after all, he declared with ironic emphasis, "it's all about us".  In other words, if we don't feel immediate impacts, we won't do anything about it (if then).

He refers to himself as a paleoscientist, and much of his research is in the cryosphere - the study of climate change as it has been recorded in ice.  Amazing new technology has enabled him to reconstruct the deep past by studying the slivers of evidence in cores with great efficiency, and what he has found should be of gravest concern to anyone who is the slightest aware of the dangers inherent in climate change.

There were some moments in his talk that I applauded, others that caused me grief, and some that made me laugh with derision.  One of the latter was his so-called solution to overpopulation, which is to "empower women".  It is gratifying that he understands and at least mentions that population is a problem since very few in the sphere of climate do - but he misses the fact that growth is a function of technology increasing food, and instead thinks that cultural changes will control it.
Equality between the sexes only exists anywhere thanks to the surplus luxury of cheap energy.  This fundamental facet of human behavior seems to have escaped him.  He places the pressures of population, however, as being overwhelmed by the problem that billions of poor people want lifestyles comparable to the wealthier citizens of the world, and that their concurrent increase in consumption of goods and energy per capita is far more significant than the absolute number of people.  He calls it the "nasty dilemma".  Thus, "empowering women", which will only happen through greater economic progress and consumption in developing nations, is logically inconsistent with his assertion that extending justice to the billions of people who aspire to energy and pollution intensive lifestyles is the greater threat.

Most of his talk is concentrated on tipping points and thresholds, in human as well as natural systems. He compares them to a canoe just about to plunge over Niagara Falls, which is well past the tipping point, or threshold, where changing course would have made a difference.  The fear is that you can't see the falls until it is too late to get off the river.  He acknowledges numerous potential tipping points including the loss of plants to absorb CO2, but he avoided the lethal potential of methane clathrates, and concentrated on sea level rise for some solid reasons.  Sea level rise is already happening, as is evident on islands and low-lying coastal areas.  It is unstoppable, because the thermal expansion will continue, as will the contribution from melting ice, particularly Greenland and Antarctica.  Sea level rise is accelerating, and will continue to accelerate - although no one knows exactly how much.

This enormous question he addresses by investigating past episodes of rapid sea level rise, as determined from studying ice cores, and the results are not reassuring, at all.  From the rapidity of sea level rise, he extrapolates the warming that would necessitate ice melt, and it is staggeringly fast.
Each slide indicates worse and then worse scenarios that have occurred in the past.
He indicated that the results of his studies are so preposterously alarming that he and his colleagues don't even present them all.

Below is a video of Jeremy Jackson, in the latest iteration of his fabled "Ocean Apocalypse" speech, which is as usual riveting - and yet has received a pathetic audience on youtube of less than 30 views since he spoke at Franklin & Marshall on November 25.  As always, he does a good job of integrating the multiple negative impacts of human activity on the ocean, and delineating the relevance to those species who make their home on the land.  He made his usual droll analogy for the horror that should accompany coral reef decline to how people would react if suddenly all the trees died - of course not recognizing that in fact, the trees ARE dying, and hardly anybody even notices and if they do, they certainly don't care enough to give up cars and electricity to save them.  Despite his efforts to educate the public about overfishing, acidification, pollution, and warming, he still holds out hope that engagement in the political process will regulate human activity so that ecosystems can recover.  This, of course, is nonsense - if the Obama presidency has proven anything, it is that no matter how much politicians nibble around the edges, consumption and pollution continue to increase globally - see for example, the article, "As US cleans up, it's exporting more pollution" which says:
Heat-trapping pollution released into the atmosphere from rising exports of U.S. gasoline and diesel dwarfs the cuts made from fuel efficiency standards and other efforts to reduce global warming in the United States, according to a new Associated Press investigation. 
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has reduced more carbon pollution from energy than any other nation, about 475 million tons between 2008 and 2013, according to U.S. Energy Department data. Less than one-fifth of that amount came from burning less gasoline and diesel fuel. 
Yet the U.S. is sending more fuel than ever to other parts of the world, where efforts to address resulting pollution are just getting underway, if advancing at all. U.S. exports of gasoline and diesel released roughly 1 billion tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere elsewhere during the same period, according to AP's analysis. 
This fossil fuel trade has helped President Barack Obama meet political goals to curb carbon dioxide at home, by taking it off America's pollution balance sheet. But that does not necessarily help the planet.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Tilting at Windmills

In honor of the youth of the world, I will be silent on December 10.  I will wear a green wristband, take a picture, and send it to

I will do it even though, as the following essay from TransitionMilwaukee demonstrates, it IS impossible to avert a horrendous crash.  The author ably demolishes the pet fantasies of climate activists for a green high-tech society, despite the obligatory hopium tacked on in the last section.  We are not, as he asserts, on the "brink" of the 6th mass extinction - it is well underway.  In fact, the case can easily be made that it began over 10,000 years ago when homo eradicatus extirpated dozens of species of megafauna, thus altering the entire ecosystems by disrupting everything from seed disbursal to precipitation.

The exhortation to Americans to consume less won't be enough to avert the climate catastrophe that is already irreversible, even if "making substantial changes in the way you live" also includes forgoing light and heat and food from the grocery store, wearing only clothing woven from homespun yarn, and refraining from even so much as an aspirin for the sick...because all those basic goods and services - food, electricity, clothing and medical care, to say nothing of travel and electronics - only exist in quantities sufficient for billions of people because they are derived from a globally industrialized civilization powered by fossil fuels.  No one is going to willingly give those up, thus nothing substantive has been or will be done.

We cannot have a "revolution" against ourselves.
Earth Day, 1972
But I will be silent on December 10 anyway - why not - make a meaningless gesture for all the bewildered and frightened children who will inherit these wrecked oceans and ruined lands.

If the world population is not stabilized… nothing but pain and grief will follow. The future will then indeed be based on our cries of agony. ~ Sir Fred Hoyle, 1963 

Tilting at Windmills ~ Gustave Doré (1863)

Six Myths About Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question
By Erik Lindberg
Myth #1:  Liberals Are Not In Denial 
“We will not apologize for our way of life” –Barack Obama
The conservative denial of the very fact of climate change looms large in the minds of many liberals.  How, we ask, could people ignore so much solid and unrefuted evidence?   Will they deny the existence of fire as Rome burns once again?  With so much at stake, this denial is maddening, indeed.  But almost never discussed is an unfortunate side-effect of this denial: it has all but insured that any national debate in America will occur in a place where most liberals are not required to challenge any of their own beliefs.  The question has been reduced to a two-sided affair—is it happening or is it not—and liberals are obviously on the right side of that.
If we broadened the debate just a little bit, however, we would see that most liberals have just moved a giant boat-load of denial down-stream, and that this denial is as harmful as that of conservatives.  While the various aspects of liberal denial are my main overall topic, here, and will be addressed in our following five sections, they add up to the belief that we can avoid the most catastrophic levels of climate disruption without changing our fundamental way of life.  This is myth is based on errors that are as profound and basic as the conservative denial of climate change itself.
But before moving on, one more point about liberal and conservative denial: Naomi Klein has suggested that conservative denial may have its roots, it will surprise many liberals, in some pretty clear thinking. [i]  At some level, she has observed, conservatives climate deniers understand that addressing climate change will, in fact, change our way of life, a way of life which conservatives often view as sacred.  This sort of change is so terrifying and unthinkable to them, she argues, that they cut the very possibility of climate change off at its knees:  fighting climate change would force us to change our way of life; our way of life is sacred and cannot be questioned; ergo, climate change cannot be happening. 
We have a situation, then, where one half of the population says it is not happening, and the other half says it is happening but fighting it doesn’t have to change our way of life.  Like a dysfunctional and enabling married couple, the bickering and finger-pointing, and anger ensures that nothing has to change and that no one has to actually look deeply at themselves, even as the wheels are falling off the family-life they have co-created.  And so do Democrats and Republicans stay together in this unhappy and unproductive place of emotional self-protection and planetary ruin.
Myth #2:  Republicans are Still More to Blame
“Yes, America does face a cliff -- not a fiscal cliff but a set of precipices [including a carbon cliff] we'll tumble over because the GOP's obsession over government's size and spending has obscured them.”  -Robert Reich
It is true that conservative politicians in the United States and Europe have been intent on blocking international climate agreements; but by focusing on these failed agreements, which only require a baby-step in the right direction, liberals obliquely side-step the actual cause of global warming—namely, burning fossil fuels.  The denial of climate change isn’t responsible for the fact that we, in the United States, are responsible for about one quarter of all current emissions if you include the industrial products we consume (and an even greater percentage of all emissions over time), even though we make up only 6% of the world’s population.  Our high-consumption lifestyles are responsible for this.  Republicans do not emit an appreciably larger amount of carbon dioxide than Democrats. 
Because pumping gasoline is our most direct connection to the burning of fossil fuels, most Americans overemphasize the significance of what sort of car we drive and many liberals might proudly point to their small economical cars or undersized SUVs.  While the transportation sector is responsible for a lot of our emissions, the carbon footprint of any one individual has much more to do with his or her overall levels of consumption of all kinds—the travel (especially on airplanes), the hotels and restaurants, the size and number of homes, the computers and other electronics, the recreational equipment and gear, the food, the clothes, and all the other goods, services, and amenities that accompany an affluent life.  It turns out that the best predictor of someone’s carbon footprint is income.  This is true whether you are comparing yourself to other Americans or to other people around the world.  Middle-class American professionals, academics, and business-people are among the world’s greatest carbon emitters and, as a group, are more responsible than any other single group for global warming, especially if we focus on discretionary consumption.  Accepting the fact of climate change, but then jetting off to the tropics, adding another oversized television to the collection, or buying a new Subaru involves a tremendous amount of denial.  There are no carbon offsets for ranting and raving about conservative climate-change deniers.
Myth #3:  Renewable Energy Can Replace Fossil Fuels
“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” –Barack Obama
This is a hugely important point.  Everything else hinges on the myth that we might live a lifestyle similar to our current one powered by wind, solar, and biofuels.  Like the conservative belief that climate change cannot be happening, liberals believe that renewable energy must be a suitable replacement.  Neither view is particularly concerned with the evidence.
Conventional wisdom among American liberals assures us that we would be well on our way to a clean, green, low-carbon, renewable energy future were it not for the lobbying efforts of big oil companies and their Republican allies.  The truth is far more inconvenient than this: it will be all but impossible for our current level of consumption to be powered by anything but fossil fuels.  The liberal belief that energy sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels can replace oil, natural gas, and coal is a mirror image of the conservative denial of climate change: in both cases an overriding belief about the way the world works, or should work, is generally far stronger than any evidence one might present.  Denial is the biggest game in town.  Denial, as well as a misunderstanding about some fundamental features of energy, is what allows someone like Bill Gates assume that “an energy miracle” will be created with enough R & D.  Unfortunately, the lessons of microprocessors do not teach us anything about replacing oil, coal, and natural gas.
It is of course true that solar panels and wind turbines can create electricity, and that ethanol and bio-diesel can  power many of our vehicles, and this does lend a good bit of credibility to the claim that a broader transition should be possible—if we can only muster the political will and finance the necessary research.  But this view fails to take into account both the limitations of renewable energy and the very specific qualities of the fossil fuels around which we’ve built our way of life.  The myth that alternative sources of energy are perfectly capable of replacing fossil fuels and thus of maintaining our current way of life receives widespread support from our President to leading public intellectuals to most mainstream journalists, and receives additional backing from our self-image as a people so ingenious that there are no limits to what we can accomplish.  That fossil fuels have provided us with a one-time burst of unrepeatable energy and affluence (and ecological peril) flies in the face of nearly all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  Just starting to dispel this myth requires that I go into the issue a bit more deeply and at greater length
Because we have come to take the power and energy-concentration of fossil fuels for granted, and see our current lifestyle as normal, it is easy to ignore the way the average citizens of industrialized societies have an unprecedented amount of energy at their disposal.  Consider this for a moment: a single $3 gallon of gasoline provides the equivalent of about 80 days of hard manual labor.  Fill up your 15 gallon gas tank in your car, and you’ve just bought the same amount of energy that would take over three years of unremitting manual labor to reproduce.  Americans use more energy in a month than most of our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime.  We live at a level, today, that in previous days could have only been supported by about 150 slaves for every American—though even that understates it, because we are at the same time beneficiaries of a societal infrastructure that is also only possible to create if we have seemingly limitless quantities of lightweight, relatively stable, easily transportable, and extremely inexpensive ready-to-burn fuel like oil or coal. 
A single, small, and easily portable gallon of oil is the product of nearly 100 tons of surface-forming algae (imagine 5 dump trucks full of the stuff), which first collected enormous amounts of solar radiation before it was condensed, distilled, and pressure cooked for a half-billion years—and all at no cost to the humans who have come to depend on this concentrated energy.  There is no reason why we should be able to manufacture at a reasonable cost anything comparable.  And when we look at the specific qualities of renewable energy with any degree of detail we quickly see that we have not.  Currently only about a half of a percent of the total energy used in the United States is generated by wind, solar, biofuels, or geothermal heat.   The global total is not much higher, despite the much touted efforts in Germany, Spain, and now China.  In 2013, 1.1% of the world’s total energy was provided by wind and only 0.2% by solar.[ii]  As these low numbers suggest, one of the major limitations of renewable energy has to do with scale, whether we see this as a limitation in renewable energy itself, or remind ourselves that the expectations that fossil fuels have helped establish are unrealistic and unsustainable. 
University of California physics professor Tom Murphy has provided detailed calculations about many of the issues of energy scale in his blog, “Do the Math.”  With the numbers adding up, we are no longer able to wave the magic wand of our faith in our own ingenuity and declare the solar future would be here, but for those who refuse to give in the funding it is due.  Consider a few representative examples: most of us have, for instance, heard at some point the sort of figure telling us that enough sun strikes the Earth every 104 minutes to power the entire world for a year.  But this only sounds good if you don’t perform any follow-up calculations.  As Murphy puts it,
As reassuring as this picture is, the photovoltaic area [required] represents more than all the paved area in the world. This troubles me. I’ve criss-crossed the country many times now, and believe me, there is a lot of pavement. The paved infrastructure reflects a tremendous investment that took decades to build. And we’re talking about asphalt and concrete here: not high-tech semiconductor. I truly have a hard time grasping the scale such a photovoltaic deployment would represent.  And I’m not even addressing storage here.” [iii]
In another post,[iv] Murphy calculates that a battery capable of storing this electricity in the U.S. alone (otherwise no electricity at night or during cloudy or windless spells) would require about three times as much lead as geologists estimate may exist in all reserves, most of which remain unknown.  If you count only the lead that we’ve actually discovered, Murphy explains, we only have 2% of the lead available for our national battery project.  The number are even more disheartening if you try to substitute lithium ion or other systems now only in the research phase.  The same story holds true for just about all the sources that even well-informed people assume are ready to replace fossil fuels, and which pundits will rattle off in an impressively long list with impressive sounding numbers of kilowatt hours produced.  Add them all up--even increase the efficiency to unanticipated levels and assume a limitless budget--and you will naturally have some big-sounding numbers; but then compare them to our current energy appetite, and you quickly see that we still run out of space, vital minerals and other raw materials, and in the meantime would probably have strip-mined a great deal of precious farmland, changed the earth’s wind patterns, and have affected the weather or other ecosystems in ways not yet imagined.
But the most significant limitation of fossil fuel’s alleged clean, green replacements has to do with the laws of physics and the way energy, itself, works.  A brief review of the way energy does what we want it to do will also help us see why it takes so many solar panels or wind turbines to do the work that a pickup truck full of coal or a small tank of crude oil can currently accomplish without breaking a sweat.  When someone tells us of the fantastic amounts of solar radiation that beats down on the Earth each day, we are being given a meaningless fact.  Energy doesn’t do work; only concentrated energy does work, and only while it is going from its concentrated state to a diffuse state—sort of like when you let go of a balloon and it flies around the room until its pressurized (or concentrated) air has joined the remaining more diffuse air in the room.
When we build wind turbines and solar panels, or grow plants that can be used for biofuels, we are “manually” concentrating the diffuse energy of the sun or in the wind—a task, not incidentally, that requires a good deal of energy.  The reason why these efforts, as impressive as they are, pale in relationship to fossil fuels has to do simply with the fact that we are attempting to do by way of a some clever engineering and manufacturing (and a considerable amount of energy) what the geology of the Earth did for free, but, of course, over a period of half a billion years with the immense pressures of the planet’s shifting tectonic plates or a hundred million years of sedimentation helping us out.  The “normal” society all of us have grown up with is a product of this one-time burst of a pre-concentrated, ready-to-burn fuel source.  It has provided us with countless wonders; but used without limits, it is threatening all life as we know it.
 Myth 4: The Coming “Knowledge Economy” Will be a Low-Energy Economy
"The basic economic resource - the means of production - is no longer capital, nor natural resources, nor labor. It is and will be knowledge."  -Peter Drucker
“The economy of the last century was primarily based on natural resources, industrial machines and manual labor. . . . Today’s economy is very different. It is based primarily on knowledge and ideas — resources that are renewable and available to everyone.”  -Mark Zuckerberg
A “low energy knowledge economy,” when promised by powerful people like Barack Obama, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, may still our fears about our current ecological trajectory.  At a gut level this vision of the future may match the direct experience of many middle-class American liberals.  Your father worked in a smelting factory; you spend your day behind a laptop computer, which can, in fact, be run on a very small amount of electricity.  Your carbon footprint must be lower, right?  Companies like Apple and Microsoft round out this hopeful fantasy with their clever and inspiring advertisements featuring children in Africa or China joining this global knowledge economy as they crowd cheerfully around a computer in some picturesque straw-hut school room.
But there’s a big problem with this picture.  This global economy may seem like it needs little more than an army of creative innovators and entrepreneurs tapping blithely on laptop computers at the local Starbucks.  But the real global economy still requires a growing fleet of container ships—and, of course, all the iron and steel used to build them, all the excavators used to mine it, all the asphalt needed to pave more of the world.  It needs a bigger and bigger fleet of UPS trucks and Fed Ex airplanes filling the skies with more and more carbon dioxide, it needs more paper, more plastic, more nickel, copper, and lead.  It requires food, bottled water, and of course lots and lots of coffee.  And more oil, coal, and natural gas.  As Juliet Schor reports, each American consumer requires “132,000 pounds of oil, sand, grain, iron ore, coal and wood” to maintain our current lifestyle each year.  That adds up to “an eye-popping 362 pounds a day.”[v]  And the gleeful African kids that Apple asks us to imagine joining the global economy?   They are far more likely to slave away in a gold mine or sift through junk hauled across the Atlantic looking for recyclable materials, than they are to be device-sporting global entrepreneurs.  The Microsoft ads are designed for us, not them.  Meanwhile, the numbers Schor reports are not going down in the age of “the global knowledge economy,” a term which should be consigned to history’s dustbin of misleading marketing slogans.
The “dematerialized labor” that accounts for the daily toil of the American middle class is, in fact, the clerical, management and promotional sector of an industrial machine that is still as energy-intensive and material-based as it ever was.   Only now, much of the sooty and smelly part has been off-shored to places far, far away from the people who talk hopefully about a coming global knowledge economy.  We like to pretend that the rest of the world can live like us, and we have certainly done our best to advertise, loan, seduce, and threaten people across the world to adopt our style, our values, and our wants.   But someone still has to do the smelting, the welding, the sorting, and run the ceaseless production lines.  And, moreover, if everyone lived like we do, took our vacations, drove our cars, ate our food, lived in our houses, filled them with oversized TVs and the endless array of throwaway gadgetry, the world would use four times as much energy and emit nearly four times as much carbon dioxide as it does now.  If even half the world’s population were to consume like we do, we would have long since barreled by the ecological point of no-return. 
Economists speak reverently of a decoupling between economic growth and carbon emissions, but this decoupling is occurring at a far slower rate than the economy is growing.  There has never been any global economic growth that is not also accompanied by increased energy use and carbon emissions.  The onlyyearly decreases in emissions ever recorded have come during massive recessions. 
 Myth 5: We can Reverse Global Warming Without Changing our Current Lifestyles
“Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free. . . . [It] would have hardly any negative effect   on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth” –Paul Krugman
The upshot of the previous sections is that the comforts, luxuries, privileges, and pleasures that we tell ourselves are necessary for a happy or satisfying life are the most significant cause of global warming and that unless we quickly learn to organize our lives around another set of pleasures and satisfactions, it is extremely unlikely that our children or grandchildren will inherit a livable planet.  Because we are falsely reassured by liberal leaders that we can fight climate change without any inconvenience, it bears repeating this seldom spoken truth.  In order to adequately address climate change, people in rich industrial nations will have to reduce current levels of consumption to levels few are prepared to consider.  This truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.[vi]  
Global warming is not complicated: it is caused mainly by burning fossil fuels; fossil fuels are burned in the greatest quantity by wealthy people and nations and for the products they buy and use.  The larger the reach of a middle-class global society, the more carbon emissions there have been.  While conservatives deny the science of global warming, liberals deny the only real solution to preventing its most horrific consequences—using less and powering down, perhaps starting with the global leaders in style and taste (as well as emissions), the American middle-class.  In the meantime we continue to pump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with each passing year.
 Myth 6: There is Nothing I Can Do.
The problem is daunting; making changes can be difficult.[vii]  But not only can you do something, you can’t not do anything.  Either you will continue to buy, use, and consume as if there is no tomorrow; or you will make substantial changes to the way you live.  Both choices are “doing something.”   Either you will emit far more CO2 than people in most parts of the globe; or you will bring your carbon footprint to an equitable level.  Either you will turn away, ignore the warnings, bury your head in the sand; or you will begin to take a strong stance on perhaps the most significant moral challenge in the history of humanity.  Either you will be a willing party to the most destructive thing humans have ever done; or you will resist the wants, the beliefs, and the expectations that are as important to a consumption-based global economy as the fossil fuels that power it.   As Americans we have already done just about everything possible to bring the planet to the brink of what scientists are now calling “the sixth great extinction.”  We can either keep on doing more of the same; or we can work to undo the damage we have done and from which we have most benefitted.  

[v] Schor, Juliet.  Plentitude, p. 44.

[vi] As Flannery O’Connor would say.

[vii] Making changes is especially difficult to do alone.  Fortunately, community efforts such as Transition Towns are popping up around the globe, giving people both practical help and the emotional support necessary to tackle such a large task.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Reason to be Optimistic

The weather is creepy...we had frost for several days, and now it is almost 70 degrees (F). 
 All the leaves are down, except for a few oaks.  This is a sycamore leaf I picked up off the ground, from one of several trees I planted about 10 years ago.  They are about 25 feet high now.
One of the reasons, besides their dappled bark and reflective white branches, that I have always loved sycamores is their giant leaves, which I recall as being as big as dinner plates.  For quite a while now, they haven't been as large -  like the one on the top, and most even smaller, like this one:
This week, I found two that were throwbacks - this leaf is smothers the same plate!  It's all very curious and part of our ongoing, accelerating ecosystem collapse.
It doesn't matter anymore though, if it ever did, that ozone is killing trees, because cataclysmic climate change assures mass extinction anyway, and it is ratcheting forward at a dizzying rate.  All the ferocious, pugilistic words that are spilled arguing about whether and how and why we have done this to ourselves and our lovely planet are merely keeping vigil over a dying body.  

It would seem that the secret is out.  I can't embed this video from The Newsroom, so click on this link and watch it!  It's absolutely stunning, especially the reactions of the young people as they listen, incredulous, to their death knell.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interregnum Redux

Autumn - at least, the experience of it, if not the calendared season itself - has drawn to an ignominious close around Wit's End, where the glory days of blazing foliage had their last gasp several years ago and barely made a token appearance in 2014.  Here is a baseline photo of a nearby pond, in 2010, on October 24.  At the time I thought it was diminished and dull, but compared to what has followed, it was a pinnacle of scintillating color.
 This is how it looked last October 26.
This is a maple located across the street, also October 24, 2010.
Two days earlier in the season, October 22, in 2012 it was noticeably thinner and less brilliant.
 This year it had almost nothing to show on October 26.
And is it any wonder?  Take a gander at New Jersey in this map of non-attainment, found in an excellent summary by James McCarthy from the Congressional Research Office.  The report was prepared in advance of the EPA's upcoming mandated reconsideration of air quality standards, and shows my state buried from all sides in the invisible miasma of toxic ozone.  The EPA already concluded that the standards now in effect are insufficient to protect vegetation, which makes a new study in PhysOrg of models predicting that ozone levels will be harmful by 2050 at today's rate of emissions utterly hysterical.
"Ozone affects photosynthesis, causing pigmentation on leaves, stunting growth and reducing yield," explains Dr Val Martin. "At a time when the world will need to be feeding a growing population, we need to be sure that our ability to do this isn't compromised by surface ozone. Our model shows that we may need more stringent controls of certain emissions - such as nitrogen oxides or methane - that contribute to ozone levels."

Annually I have posted extensive comparisons of "pigmented" - burnt, necrotic - and stunted foliage, but this year was so dismal that I didn't bother, other than the two above.  It's too depressing, and repetitive.  But for gluttons for punishment who missed them, following is a partial list of prior photographic studies for handy reference.

Nov. 2010 The Country Mouse Reluctantly Trains to the City
Oct. 2012 Arrested at Their Prime
Oct. 2012 Spill the Scarlet Rain
Oct. 2012 Torches of Freedom
Nov. 2012 All Lies and Jest
Nov. 2012 This Impostor
Nov. 2012 Hysteresis and the Vile Conspiracy to Blame the Bugs
Sept. 2013 And They All Fall Down
Oct. 2013 Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Rust
Oct. 2013 Smell the Earth, Taste the Rain, Hear the Sun Rise

Or presuming you are in the Northern Hemisphere, you could instead just have a look around and determine for yourself how October Glory maple trees right now compare to this 2004 calendar meticulously tracking leaf change.  Those leaves didn't fall off until November 25, and when they did, they fell almost all at once, practically overnight...prior to that, the crown was intact, there was no earlier thinning, no ugly bare branches protruding.  Notice too that when the leaves finally fell off they were still bright red on the lawn beneath, not brown.  This tree, which was growing in Metuchen, New Jersey, behaved like trees are supposed to in the autumn...but don't, anymore.
Just as was predicted by Charles Little long ago in his book, The Dying of the Trees, now that ecosystem collapse is well underway, the bone-white brackets of dogwood that once floated in spring, suspended in the forest understory like millions of feathers from the wings of angels, are nearly gone -  Cumulative damage from ozone is wiping out entire species.
Fortuitously, a talented photographer with an incredibly discerning eye decided to document the scenery of New England, in addition to his oeuvre of elegant still lives and captivating portraiture.   Michael Jermyn has graciously granted me permission to use some of his photographs to illustrate this post about the ravages of pollution on trees.  He is also a musician and often is to be found in his landscapes, lurking like a Puckishly happy, carefree jester, joyously celebrating life.
As well as capturing luscious landscapes redolent of exalted influences like, perhaps, van Gogh and Monet, he is intrigued by the decrepit, abandoned barns that punctuate the hills of Vermont, and sometimes he includes a glimpse of what he calls his alter-ego - a faceless, spectral figure in a voluminous dark overcoat, an enigmatic figure that reminds me of a more genial Charon, affably escorting us across the Styx...while diplomatically refraining from any direct reference to the juxtaposition of vibrant nature with inevitable decay.
Charon crosses the Styx ~ Manuel Balea
See what I mean?

In addition to his page on facebook, Michael's work can be found in the three books he has published so far, which can be viewed and purchased online - (1Discovering the Secret Language of Trees; and other epiphanies in black and white, (2Such a Hungry Ghost; still life and verse, and (3) my favorite, the voluptuously intense collection called Surfing the Light.
In that book he includes quotes and verses, like this one from the Moody Blues:

The trees are drawing me near -
I've got to find out why
these gentle voices I hear
explain it all with a sigh...

And so before we go any further on about overshoot and collapse and extinction and nasty stuff like that, here, with profuse gratitude to Michael both for his pictures and reminding me of Tuesday Afternoon, is a version of that song, in a concert taped in 1970 with remarkably good acoustics:

This sweetly evocative tune reminds me of how innocent that time was (or perhaps, less charitably, just ignorant?) two years before the world was warned by the Club of Rome of the Limits to Growth - and causes me to meditate on how odd that I should have been born in this astonishing era, an epoch of such wealth and consequently such anticipatory bitterness, when the peak of human civilization is within sight...and those who can see beyond the precipice to the abyss are consumed and overwhelmed with the gnawing dread of knowing life is drawing to a rapid morbid close.
Reiel Folven has passed away, having recently published Too Many Mouths - A Senior Reader on the Human Predicament.  In what he described as "the wisdom of over 100 scientists and world-class thinkers", he brought together in this wisely edited compilation many compelling observations and dire predictions stemming from overpopulation.  Here is a quote (p. 156) worth pondering:

Because of the exponential nature of population growth in the presence of abundant resources, a single generation of the population – the most numerous generation – experiences abundance in its youth, starvation in maturity, and premature death for most of its members. "Crash" is an apt term--a population crash can happen very quickly.
     ~ David M. Delaney

Thanks to cheap energy, we have had a unique, anomalous period of prosperity which has made room for modern luxuries unknown to prior cultures - like the abolition of slavery, the institutionalized repudiation of racism, the expansion of women's rights, a comfortable middle class with limitless aspirations, medical care for the handicapped and the elderly and the prematurely born.  Now with resource constraints and the saturation of the biosphere with pollution, that is all going to disappear forever, just a temporary interregnum of abundance, and we will revert to the ugly fearsome time when the survival of the fittest isn't just a theory to be debated anymore but an imperative that will ruthlessly suppress moral sensibilities.  (Interregnum 2012 is here.)
It is not at all unusual for people to delve into the past when it dawns on them that we are hurtling our heedless way towards ecocide.  It seems to be a common urge to understand what has brought us to this ecopocalypse, and to wonder whether it could have been averted, and if so when, and how.

As these questions plagued me I have wondered if it was the invention of agriculture, or earlier - the wheel, or becoming meat eaters, or first matching stick to stone.  I suspect what set humans outside of natural controls of our growth was fostered mainly by the the discovery of how to create and control fire (which I wrote about in a post called, I Blame Prometheus).  I find more and more scientific evidence that speculation may well be the case.  A paleoecological research institute in New Zealand includes this information on their website:

From the book, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis:
Not only were Europe and North America affected by changes in the climate, but tropical regions as well — although less is known about the latter. As humans migrated to newly forested areas, they would have nearly as much impact on the forest over the subsequent 10,000 years as the glaciers had for 100,000 years. Chapter 2 points to fire as the main vehicle used by primitive peoples for deforestation. Williams argues that the manipulation and taming of nature by prehistoric and native peoples is commonly ignored and underestimated. Their actions have been romanticized and asserted to have been ecologically benign. But, according to Williams, natives never were “in perfect harmony” with nature, but attempted to transform it, and fire was the first great force.
The combination of human predation and destruction of habitat through burning led to the extinction of many species across the planet, and Williams provides examples from Europe, North America, and Polynesia. He argues that the first Europeans to visit North America likely observed a profoundly disturbed landscape. At their peak around 1492, the Indian population of North America had long been transforming the forest for agriculture and hunting. Chapter 3 turns to the rise of agriculture, which involved both the domestication of animals and plant species and the removal of forest. The examination begins with the Neolithic period in the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America, and moves on to describe the gradual expansion of agricultural methods and clearing practices.
The effects of deforestation are far-reaching.  Today, scientists suggest that deforestation of the Amazon is the reason behind the crippling drought in Sao Paolo, Brazil, far downwind - by interfering with the hydrological cycle promoted by the evapotranspiration process that derives from living trees. 

An article in New Scientist puts the use of fire second only behind projectile weapons as distinguishing our singular evolution.  In light of the extreme materialism of today's culture, another intriguing aspect is how early the use of jewelry and other body ornamentation began - it appears to be deeply embedded in our psyches to express status through such symbolism.  I found this chronology fascinating.  Some excerpts:

Transformers:  Ten Revolutions that Made Us Human
Two million years ago we were just your average primate – then we started to have some revolutionary ideas and human evolution went into hyper-drive.  What makes us human?
IT WAS at least 7 million years ago that our ancestors diverged from those of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. For most of that time they were ape-like forest dwellers, with the furry bodies, small brains and unsophisticated behaviour to match. Then, about 2 million years ago, everything changed. We began to take evolution into our own hands, starting a series of innovations that changed human history – and made us into the very modern apes we are today (see timeline below).

Cooking  Our earliest ancestors may have walked on two legs, but their heads were small, their teeth large and their arms long. No one knows for sure why they began to look more human, but unlike the bodies of other species, which are shaped by natural selection, ours may have been sculpted by our own ingenuity. Here's the theory. Early hominins dined on tough, raw foods that required a lot of chewing and digesting to break down. That changed when they began to control fire and cook. Heat softens food and breaks down difficult-to-digest fibre into easily absorbed sugars. Big teeth and long guts were no longer necessary, and so over the generations they gradually shrank. Other things shrank too. Because fire wards off predators, our ancestors did not have to retreat to the trees at night and no longer needed such long arms for climbing. Finally, the energy savings made by shrinking body parts went to their heads; their brains began to grow. In other words, Homo erectus looked like us because it cooked like us....An alternative idea pins brain growth on a shift to eating meat, which would provide a more nutritious diet. It implies H. erectus was a skilled hunter. Our bodies certainly seem adapted to chase down prey until it is totally exhausted. But another ancient human innovation reshaped the rules of the hunt – and perhaps the nature of human societies too. 
Weapons  Projectile weapons travel faster than even the speediest antelope. A study published last year suggested that H. erectus made use of them, since it was the earliest of our ancestors with a shoulder suitable for powerful and accurate throwing. What's more, unusual collections of fist-sized rocks at a H. erectussite near the town of Dmanisi in Georgia give an idea of their projectile weapon of choice.But throwing rocks did more than offer a new hunting strategy: it also gave early humans an effective way to kill an adversary. Christopher Boehm at the University of Southern California has suggested that projectile weapons levelled the playing field in early human societies by allowing even the weakest group member to take down a dominant figure without having to resort to hand-to-hand combat. So weapons, he argues, encouraged early human groups to embrace an egalitarian existence unique among primates; one that is still seen in hunter-gatherer societies today. [note: as usual, this sort of  egalitarianism only applies to males!]In fact, weapons may have had an even greater impact. Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza at Stony Brook University in New York have developed the idea that human societies used, and continue to use, the threat of projectile weapons to encourage a high level of cooperation among group members. They call it the social coercion theory. 
Jewellery and cosmetics If Bingham and Souza are right, we would recognise some of our social behaviour in H. erectus. However, it is not until 100,000 years ago – after the appearance of Homo sapiens – that many of our most recognisable habits began to form. At the Blombos cave in South Africa, excavations a decade ago revealed collections of shells that had been perforated and stained, and then strung together to form necklaces or bracelets. Similar finds have now turned up at other sites in Africa. More recently, work at Blombos has uncovered evidence that ochre was deliberately collected, combined with other ingredients and fashioned into body paint or cosmetics.  At first glance these inventions seem trivial, but they hint at dramatic revolutions in the nature of human beliefs and communication. Jewellery and cosmetics were probably prestigious, suggesting the existence of people of higher and lower status and challenging the egalitarian sensibilities that had existed since the early days of H. erectus. More importantly, they are indications of symbolic thought and behaviour because wearing a particular necklace or form of body paint has meaning beyond the apparent. As well as status, it can signify things like group identity or a shared outlook. That generation after generation adorned themselves in this way indicates these people had language complex enough to establish traditions. 
Sewing  What people invented to wear with their jewellery and cosmetics was equally revolutionary. Needle-like objects appear in the archaeological record about 60,000 years ago, providing the first evidence of tailoring, but humans had probably already been wearing simple clothes for thousands of years. Evidence for this comes from a rather unusual source. Body lice, which live mostly in clothes, evolved from hair lice sometime after humans began clothing themselves, and a study of louse genetics suggests body lice arose some 70,000 years ago. A more recent analysis puts their origin as early as 170,000 years ago. Either way, it looks like we were wearing sewn clothes when we migrated from our African cradle some 60,000 years ago and began spreading across the world.Mark Stoneking at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, an author on the original louse study, suggests that clothes would have allowed humans to inhabit cold areas that their naked predecessors could not tolerate. Sewing could have been a crucial development, since fitted garments are more effective at retaining body heat than loose animal furs. Even then, the frozen north would have been a challenge for a species that evolved on the African savannah, and recent research indicates that we also took advantage of changes in the climate to spread across the world.
Containers  When some of our ancestors left Africa, they probably travelled with more than just the clothes on their backs. About 100,000 years ago, people in southern Africa began using ostrich eggs as water bottles. Having containers to transport and store vital resources would have given them huge advantages over other primates. But engravings on these shells are also highly significant: they appear to be a sign that dispersed groups had begun to connect and trade.Since 1999, Pierre-Jean Texier at the University of Bordeaux in France has been uncovering engraved ostrich egg fragments at the Diepkloof rock shelter, 150 kilometres north of Cape Town in South Africa. The same five basic motifs are used time and again, over thousands of years, implying they had a meaning that could be read and understood across numerous generations. Texier and his colleagues think they show that people were visually marking and defining their belongings to maintain their group identity as they began travelling further and interacting with other groups.
Law  As our ancestors began trading, they would have needed to cooperate fairly and peacefully – with not just group members but also strangers from foreign lands. So trade may have provided the impetus to invent law and justice to help keep people in line.Hints of how law evolved come from modern human groups, which, like Stone Age hunter-gatherers, live in egalitarian, decentralised societies. The Turkana are nomadic pastoralists in east Africa. Despite having no centralised political power, the men will cooperate with non-family members in a life-threatening venture – stealing livestock from neighbouring peoples, say. While the activity itself may be ethically dubious, the motivation to cooperate reflects ideas that underpin any modern justice system. If men refuse to join these raiding parties they are judged harshly and punished by other group members, says Sarah Mathew at Arizona State University in Tempe. "They display mechanisms of adjudication and punishment akin to formal judiciary, suggesting that law and justice predates the emergence of centralised societies."
Timekeeping  As trade flourished over the millennia that followed, it wasn't just material goods that were exchanged. Trade in ideas encouraged new ways of thinking, and perhaps the early stirrings of scientific thought. Communities of hunter-gatherers living in what is now Scotland may have been among the first to scientifically observe and measure their environment. Aberdeenshire has many Mesolithic sites dating from about 10,000 years ago, including an odd monument consisting of a dozen pits arranged in a shallow arc trending roughly north-east to south-west. When Vincent Gaffney at the University of Birmingham and his colleagues noticed the arc faced a sharp valley on the horizon through which the sun rises on the winter solstice, they realised it was a cosmological statement. The 12 pits were almost certainly used to keep track of lunar months. The Aberdeenshire lunar "calendar" – or "time reckoner" as they dubbed it – is comfortably twice the age of any previously found."Almost every culture begins to define the passing of time using the moon," says Gaffney. By establishing a formal concept of time you know when to expect seasonal events, such as the return of salmon to the local rivers. And knowledge is power. "If you have that arcane knowledge you have the opportunity to control society," says Gaffney. 
Ploughing  While Scotland's hunter-gatherers were measuring time, their contemporaries in the Near East had settled down to farm. Crop cultivation is tough work that inspired the first farmers to invent labour-saving devices. The most quintessential of these, the plough, might have influenced society in a surprising way.In the past, as today, hunter-gatherer societies were probably often divided along gender lines, with men hunting and women gathering. Farming promised greater gender equality, because both sexes could work the land, but the plough – which was heavy and so primarily controlled by men – brought an end to that. So argued Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup in the 1970s. Last year Paola Giuliano at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues tested the idea by comparing gender equality in societies across the world that either adopted the plough or a different form of agriculture. Not only did they confirm the plough effect, they found that it continues to influence gender perceptions today. "The plough is not the only determinant of differences in gender roles," stresses Giuliano. "But if two societies are otherwise alike, those that use the plough will be more gender-biased." 
Sewerage  Farming has been described as the worst mistake in human history: it is back-breaking work. But it did provide such plentiful food that it allowed the growth of urban centres. City living comes with many advantages but it also carries a health warning; urbanites are at risk from infectious diseases carried by water.Almost as long as there have been cities, there have been impressive sewerage systems. Cities in the 5000-year-old Indus Valley society were built above extensive drains. Lavatory-like systems existed in early Scottish settlements dating from around the same time, and there are 3500-year-old flush toilets and sewers in Crete. But none of these were really designed with sanitation in mind, says Thomas Bond at Imperial College London. "Many of the sewerage systems were advanced in a civil engineering sense, but they were really just to dispose of waste water – for example into the nearest river."It was only in the 1850s, when physician John Snow linked an outbreak of cholera in London to insanitary water supplies, that people started to clean waste water. Large-scale centralised sewage works date from the early decades of the 20th century. Effective sewerage was a long time coming, but when it did arrive it revolutionised public health. 
Writing  The engraved ostrich eggshells of Diepkloof show that modern humans have used graphical symbols to convey meaning for at least 100,000 years. But genuine writing was only invented about 5000 years ago. Now people could record information and pass it between places and generations. Cultural evolution would never be the same again.Writing also provided a means to convey hopes and fears, revealing how subsequent innovations had affected the human psyche. Some of the world's oldest texts, from the Mesopotamian city-state of Lagash, rail against the spiralling taxes exacted by a corrupt ruling class. Soon afterwards, King Urukagina of Lagash wrote what is thought to be the first documented legal code. He has gained a reputation as the earliest social reformer, creating laws to limit the excesses of the rich, for instance, but his decrees also entrench the inferior social position of women. One details penalties for adulterous women, but makes no mention of adulterous men. Despite all our revolutionary changes, humanity still had some way to go.

For those who think there might have been some point at which humans could have averted disaster, at what point would that be in that great trajectory of acquiring tools and technology, as well as creativity, knowledge and the capacity for belief in spirituality?  To me they all seem inextricably linked.   I imagine how, as human minds began to grasp the concept of time and wonder about the cyclical patterns of seasons and celestial bodies, tremendous respect would be conferred upon anyone with enough brazen confidence to claim special knowledge or explanatory powers, and the shaman or priest would the possess fearsome abilities to influence others.
Glancing over a marvelous list of lost cities - of sophisticated societies from around the world that collapsed so completely they were often forgotten and lay buried for centuries under sand or jungle before being accidentally rediscovered - it is hard to give credence to the idea that there is anything unusual, or preventable, about overshoot and collapse.

"Our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light." In this brief rumination about Earth and our place on it, Carl Sagan talks about our "fervent hatreds" and makes no distinction between race, class, geographical or temporal location  when he describes the "folly of HUMAN conceits".  He warns that nothing will be forthcoming from beyond to save us from ourselves, and that it is up to preserve and cherish the only home we've ever known.  When you look at the BIG picture, at scale, we are all one species and our destructive, extractive behavior is indistinguishable across cultures and epochs.  This doesn't excuse egregious evil.  But it puts it solidly within the purview of who we all are.


Several news outlets have reported on a new study that air pollution is cutting crop yields significantly - although the obvious implications for wild vegetation and trees seem to escape notice, as usual.  See the Guardian, and even more strongly, the Telegraph India story which states:
Air pollution is a far bigger threat than climate change to wheat and rice and a key factor holding back India from achieving optimum yields of these crops, a new study has suggested. The study released today by scientists at the University of California, San Diego, has found that India’s wheat yields during 2010 were on an average about 36 per cent lower than they would have been in the absence of air pollution and climate change. Researchers Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Jennifer Burney at the UCSD have also shown that up to 90 per cent of the reduction in the wheat yields could be attributed to air pollutants, mainly soot particles, or black carbon and ozone... 
“We’ve been largely focused on how climate change may influence crop yields, these results suggest that air pollution is a larger threat,” Srinivasan told The Telegraph.
What's amazing is none of this is really new.  The US Dept of Agriculture has been trying to develop "ozone-resistant" crops, to almost no avail, for years.  Justin Gillis of the New York Times, continuing his assiduous avoidance of impacts to the natural world, reported about the ongoing attempts to engineer annual crops, in which he made a number of dubious statements and glaring omissions.  He described ozone as  "...a corrosive form of oxygen that attacks both plants and people’s lungs, and many experts fear ground-level ozone will increase as the world gets hotter and more polluted."

Fair enough, and then he points to the down-side of elevated CO2:

"In a high-profile paper, the experts reported that crops grown in environments designed to mimic future conditions have serious deficiencies of certain nutrients, compared with crops of today.
The Illinois researchers are trying to move past just documenting the potential trouble, though. The bigger question is: What can be done to make crops more resilient?"

"In recent years, leading scientists have called for a much more intense focus on ozone, noting that it seems to be cutting world food production already compared with what would otherwise be possible. Moreover, it may be an easier pollutant to control than carbon dioxide."

Here is where he goes off the rails.  Ozone might be easier to control in the sense that once you stop producing it, the atmosphere clears relatively quickly, whereas CO2 persists, continuing to heat the planet for centuries.  However, my understanding is that whenever fuel is combusted, nitrogen becomes oxidized, and voilá, there is your precursor to ozone - so the only way to "control" ozone is to reduce the burning of fuel...which isn't going to happen voluntarily.  No wonder they are looking for "resistant" cultivars.
"...reducing ozone is not the only possible strategy for helping crops. Developing plants resistant to its effects would be another approach, and that is a major focus at the University of Illinois."

Not to mention that methane, another precursor, is going to continue to increase no matter what we do now, thanks to amplifying feedbacks in the melting permafrost and, potentially, clathrates.  And, it leaves out the ominous expectation expressed in the PhysOrg paper linked at the top of this post:

"...our findings show that the emissions reductions we're expecting to achieve won't guarantee air quality on their own, as they will be offset by changes in climate and land use and by an increase in wildfires. This is an issue that will affect all parts of the world, not just the USA."
Indeed, research from India already indicates that "The nationally aggregated yield loss is sufficient to feed 94 million people living below poverty line in India."

The blinkered perspective of Justin Gillis and the USDA scientists, who are splurging tax money on expensive equipment while they cavort in the fields, is also pervasive in the frequently encountered advice to plant trees because they absorb ozone and conveniently clean the air for us squalid humans.  It is expressed also in a new study that informs us forests are absorbing excess nitrogen, in another benevolentservice to us humans, because it prevents - or at least slows - the eutrophication of wetlands, streams, lakes, and rivers.  Thank you trees!!  Sorry that excess nitrogen isn't so good for you!

Ecological Society of America
Ecologists working in central Pennsylvania forests have found that forest top soils capture and stabilize the powerful fertilizer nitrogen quickly, within days, but release it slowly, over years to decades. The discrepancy in rates means that nitrogen can build up in soils. Forests may be providing an unappreciated service by storing excess nitrogen emitted by modern agriculture, industry, and transport before it can cause problems for our waterways.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient, required for all living things to live and grow. Though a major component of the air, it is largely inaccessible, captured only through the metabolism of certain microbes or washed to earth in the form of ammonia, nitrogen oxides, or organic material by rain, snow, and fog. On land, microbes, fungi, and plants incorporate what doesn't wash away into proteins, DNA, and other biological components. Organic matter in the soil -- the remains of fallen leaves, animal droppings, and dead things in various states of decay -- can also capture newly deposited nitrogen, holding it stable in the soil.
Mature forests store nitrogen more efficiently than young forests recovering from clear-cuts the authors found, because they have been accumulating organic matter on the forest floor for a century or more. When a forest is clear cut, erosion soon follows, washing away top soil. A young stand of trees a decade old is beginning to rebuild the organic layer, but it will take many autumns to accumulate.
The orderly succession of changes in resident species as a forest grows and ages is a classic preoccupation of ecological theory. The exchange of nutrients among the species and the non-living landscape also changes with succession, and the discovery that nitrogen accumulates in the organic soil indicates something important about how an ecosystem's nutrient economy ages. It was thought, up through the 1970s and early 80s, that an ecosystem grows like a person. At some point, forests, like people, stop getting bigger and adding new biomass. Ecologists argued that the ability to capture incoming nutrients stopped with the end of growth. But by the mid-80s, it was clear that mature ecosystems did continue to absorb nitrogen, mostly in soil. By showing that nitrogen capture is much faster than its release, Lewis and colleagues suggest a mechanism by which old ecosystems can accumulate new inputs of nutrients.
Because soils rich in organics can quickly incorporate nitrogen, forest soils have the potential to absorb excess nitrogen that has been newly added to the biosphere through human activities. Application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and combustion of fossil fuels produce substantial amounts of ammonia and nitrogen oxides. Since industrialization, human activities have tripled the global rate of fixation of nitrogen from the air. The excess has perturbed the nutrient economies of many ecosystems, most visibly by feeding algal blooms and oxygen-deprived dead zones in lakes and estuaries. The study suggests that we may want to strategically conserve or restore forests, preserving organic-rich soils where they intercept the movement of ground water towards streams, lakes, or estuaries.

For Halloween, middle daughter asked me to style her hair, which necessitated much braiding, pinning and snake insertion.  To my delight, I learned this, of Medusa, from wiki:

"Medusa has sometimes appeared as representing notions of scientific determinism and nihilism, especially in contrast with romantic idealism. In this interpretation of Medusa, attempts to avoid looking into her eyes represent avoiding the ostensibly depressing reality that the universe is meaningless. Jack London uses Medusa in this way in his novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore:"
I cannot help remembering a remark of De Casseres. It was over the wine in Mouquin's. Said he: "The profoundest instinct in man is to war against the truth; that is, against the Real. He shuns facts from his infancy. His life is a perpetual evasion. Miracle, chimera and to-morrow keep him alive. He lives on fiction and myth. It is the Lie that makes him free. Animals alone are given the privilege of lifting the veil of Isis; men dare not. The animal, awake, has no fictional escape from the Real because he has no imagination. Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie."
We learn more of Maya in the following excerpt from Chapter XI - "Hoping, Growing, and the Analytical Process", from Suicide and the Soul, by James Hillman, 1979:
"WHERE there is life, there is hope" is the physician's maxim. Hope puts heart in the patient, strengthening his will to live. The physician dare never yield his hope. It is the essence of his therapeutic attitude. 
This maxim means more than its secular, medical use, i.e., as long as the patient lives there is hope for cure. The sentence states an identity of life and hope. Where life is, there is hope. And this hope is the very will to live, the desire for the future--or as the dictionary defines it: "to expect with desire". How could we go on without it; what is tomorrow without it? The physician's maxim offers the idea that man's fundamental driving force might well be hope, just as hopelessness is the atmosphere of suicide. Where there is life, there must be hope. Hope keeps us going. Or as T. S. Eliot has phrased it: 
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind Cannot bear very much reality.

And if hope is the fundamental emotional force of life, perhaps it is also, as Eliot hints, the opposite: the fundamental deceit, as the expectation and desire that takes us away from the moment. 
The tales of the origin of hope in the world might be worth recalling. In India hope belongs to Maya, the Great Goddess, who tempts us with the round of illusion.  Like Maya, hope spins the countless fancies of our fate. We are caught up in a web of hopes which is the will to live experienced as projections towards the future.  
As fundamental emotion, the hope of Maya would be what modern psychology calls the projecting function of the psyche which never lets us go as long as we live, luring us onward. In the West, Pandora is the counterpart of Maya. The tales of their creation show parallels. In Greece, Zeus made Pandora as a life-sized statue, a doll of painted beauty, the first 'sweet cheat' (kalon kakon), endowed with virtues by twenty of the Greek divinities. 
In India,  the Great Goddess came into being as a combined product of the assembled Hindu pantheon to save the world from despair. In another tale she appeared in the form of Dawn; and then, as Sati, she was fashioned by Brahma in the presence of twenty divinities to tempt Shiva down from ascetic isolation so that the eternal play of life could continue, breeding and exfolilating without cessation. 
Associated with the Goddess, Greek and Hindu, are all the follies and vices of human passion, and all the creative (Shiva and Brahma; Prometheus, Hephaestus, Zeus) energies of human pursuits. 
Pandora in her original form was represented as a large jar or vessel. As the Panofskys show, this vessel became a box in later tradition. In Pandora, as vessel, all the evils of the world lay concealed.  When this was opened (and it must be inevitably, in the same manner that Eve brought Sin into the world by yielding to temptation of the forbidden) out flew the evils, all save Hope. The creation of the phenomenal world of illusion is similar in Greece, in India, in the Old Testament. 
Hesiod's tale of Pandora tells us that hope is one of the evils that was in the vessel, and is the only one that remains within.  It lies concealed where it is not seen, whereas all the other evils, fancies, passions are the projections we meet outside in the world. These can be recaptured by integrating the projections.  But hope is within, bound up with the dynamism of life itself. Where hope is, is life. 
We can never confront it directly any more than we can seize life, for hope is the urge to live into tomorrow, the heedless leaning ahead into the future. Go, go, go.
Is not religious hope altogether different ? We find it in Paul's Epistle to the Romans, VlI: "For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope:  for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it."  Hoping is not hoping for what one hopes for; one hopes not for that which is already known. Such hope is hope for the wrong thing. It is illusion. Again to use the words of Eliot: 
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without loveFor love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Or, as Reiel Folven noted less formally, designating "hope" as "optimism":

Evolution made optimism genetic. Skilled optimists survived and mated most effectively.
The new era made collective decision making awful more difficult than in the jungle.
The optimism however remained.
A major reason for our predicament is IMHO therefore NAIVE OPTIMISM.

Here is a last video, which is bizarre, but I like it.  I don't know about the lyrics, but the visuals hint at the intimation that somewhere, deep inside all of us, we know that we are messing with the trees to our detriment, and they will be revenged.

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