Following is the transcript for the 25th Dispatch From the Endocene, which can be heard at ExtinctionRadio.org 43 minutes in. The artwork is by Arthur Rackham, whose depiction of trees rendered them veritable sentient characters in his illustrations of fairy tales.
Thanks as always Gene, and welcome Listeners, to the 25th Dispatch From The Endocene. The transcript and pertinent links will be found on my blog, Wit’s End, under the inspirational title, “Love is Not Enough”.
Robert Redford is described in an interview as having a life-long love affair with the American West and is quoted: “I love to explore and love to drive”. Isn’t that perfect? That must be why he built the Sundance Resort in Utah, where countless affluent airheads fly in annually for the Film Festival, and even more prosperous tourists take private planes to ski down the slopes of the mountains, denuded of trees. Apparently he had to kill them to save them.
Harrison Ford, another spokesman for Conservation International, said “There's nothing better than seeing a herd of elk right outside the window of my house in Wyoming. My land gives me an opportunity to be close to nature, and I find spiritual solace in nature, contemplating our species in the context of the natural world.” Apparently he finds no irony in adding “All of my planes are great to fly, and that's why I've got so many of them. I have a Citation Sovereign, a long-range jet; a Grand Caravan, a turboprop aircraft capable of operating on unimproved strips; and a De Havilland, a bush plane. I have a 1929 Waco Taperwing open-top biplane; a 1942 PT-22 open-top monoplane trainer; an Aviat Husky, a two-seat fabric-covered bush plane; and a Bell 407 helicopter. I also have more than my fair share of motorbikes - eight or nine. I have four or five BMWs, a couple of Harleys, a couple of Hondas and a Triumph; plus I have sports touring bikes.”
Trust-fund baby Edward Norton probably feels he is helping the earth by promoting healthy soils in the campaign, and no doubt feels he needs a Mercedes and a couple of Range Rovers because, hey, he has several mansions scattered around the world and besides, he also has a hydrogen-fueled BMW.
A comical vanity enables us to reconcile our supposed love for nature with helping ourselves to whatever abuse of it that suits our wishes - and it seems to apply to just about everyone, not only the 1%, to one degree or another. I was reminded of this when the professional activists got into an excited dither because Leonardo DiCaprio used the occasion of his Oscar win to pontificate about climate change. Meanwhile, he has bought an entire island off the coast of Belize with the intention of “restoring” it - while building an extremely high-end eco-tourist resort. His reason? He said, “As soon as I got there, I fell in love.”
Never mind that any benefit to the local flora and fauna will be more than obviated by the construction. Plus, in perpetuity, the destination will generate emissions from travel. Likely much of it will be by even more impactful private jet - since hardly anyone who can afford to spend $2,000 per night, or to purchase one of the 48 opulent vacation villas valued between 5 and 15 million, surely can’t be expected to fly commercial with the hoi polloi. Mr. DiCaprio apparently sees no conflict in choosing to work with a builder who is a former partner at Goldman Sachs, and his architect was quoted:
“The goal was to create something that wasn’t contrived — a tiki hut or some image of a Hawaiian getaway — but rather the history of the place, the Mayan culture, with a more modern approach,” Mr. McLennan said. “We want to change the outlook of people who visit, on both the environment writ large and also their personal well-being.”
[update: I have learned that Leo felt it was just essential for him to go to Greenland to see the melting ice for himself. No doubt this raised so much awareness, that dozens upon dozens of people have given up flying, thus offsetting his emissions.]
According to the [oxymoronic] Center for Responsible Travel “The ecotourism market is large and growing, with eight billion ecotourist visits a year worldwide. Ecotourism is travel that minimizes negative impact on a location and seeks to preserve its natural resources.”
Does anyone but me see how ludicrous this is? There seems to be a peculiarly common human ability to be utterly blind to one’s own self-justifications - much like hunters, whether contemporary or ancient, offer a prayer to whatever god or spiritual entity they believe in before they shoot, bludgeon, or stab their prey - as though that means the animal they kill is any happier about dying.
I wonder if the people who colonized Pedro González Island in the Pearl Archipelago off of Panama thanked the spirits for their prey. Scientists have just discovered that settlers arrived there 6200 years ago and for perhaps 8 centuries remained, “…farming maize and roots, fishing, gathering palm fruits and shellfish and hunting…opossums, agoutis, iguanas and large snakes - the major predators”. Oh and the dwarfish, tiny deer they hunted to extinction. The scientists discovered that:
“Some deer bones had cuts indicating butchering, such as disarticulation and slicing meat from the bone, or had the marks of human teeth. Others had been burned or smashed to get at the marrow. Antlers and long bones were often cut for making everyday tools and ornaments. Hunting appears to have been indiscriminate, including adults as well as juveniles.”
“The number of deer bones decreased in the youngest layer of the midden, and those of older adults were absent, suggesting that the species was becoming scarcer and life expectancies lower. No deer bones were found in later layers left by pottery-using people after 2,300 years ago, indicating that the species had become extinct on Pedro González by then.”
Islands are often illustrative microcosms, analogous to the whole of planet Earth. They become hot-beds of biodiversity, as they are cut off from outside competition - and when humans arrive their species are especially vulnerable to extinction. No matter how much the people love the animals and plants they encounter, too often it doesn’t stop them from overwhelming the ones they value the most. Native Americans, north and south, had no horses and few domesticated animals, because their ancestors ate them all soon after they migrated to the continent.
This is a pattern that repeats throughout history, around the world, writ both large and small. I’ll give you a current example. Wilderness enthusiasts have already bought out all the berths on the lavish new cruise ship “Crystal Serenity”. The first luxury liner of its size to navigate the northwest passage, it is scheduled to depart next August. A mere $22,000 is all that was required, unless you wanted a penthouse for $120,000 - based on double occupancy - plus insurance up to $50,000 per person in case an emergency evacuation is required. So now for the very fist time, thanks to ice melting from global warming, 1,070 passengers and at least an equal number of crew can pollute the pristine arctic ocean with their shit, piss, vomit, and fuel emissions AND add to the underwater cacophony that has already made it difficult for orcas to feed and right whales to communicate. The passengers will no doubt love the view of the collapsing glaciers from their privileged vantage on the deck.
It’s not only the famous and fatuous who think they are so special that the rules they would impose on everyone else don’t apply to them. Each and every human is convinced that their needs are sacred and must be fulfilled - and that the definition of their needs is determined by their own desires, without regard to the requirements of other forms of life. In an earlier Dispatch I mentioned the delicate alpine wildflowers being trampled to extinction by mountain hikers and bikers. It turns out that prickly cactus are no safer.
Smugglers posing as hobbyists travel through the American west and elsewhere in the world, using satellite coordinates to mark the locations of especially rare, endangered - and therefore more expensive - specimens. Like other illegal wildlife products, the internet has facilitated the trade, and the numbers are staggering. Collecting is endangering the very survival of many prized varieties, as they are plucked from deserts in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico. Customs officials can’t keep up with the volume of material. Some hunters steal or trade in the market for money, but there wouldn’t be any money in it if there weren’t people who feel what The Atlantic called a “spiritual affinity”, an “obsession”, a “passion” and, yes, love - some for the tremendous size of the iconic saguaro, and others for the seldom but spectacular blooms of more diminutive varieties. The article notes that cacti are particularly vulnerable to what humans call “love”, because they they “…tend to grow slowly, live a long time, reproduce infrequently, and concentrate in one area.”
This conviction that each person carries within them - that their priorities are exceptional and that the rules don’t apply - leads to absurdities such as taking air travel off the table at the climate negotiations in Paris. Nearly everyone who participated, obviously, had flown there. Flying is the third rail of climate activism - the organizations with a mandate to avoid catastrophic climate change won’t touch it, because there is no way to reduce emissions by even the unrealistic thresholds agreed to by negotiators without drastically reducing if not eliminating the exceptionally high impact of airplane emissions.
About a year ago at the American Geophysical Union conference, James White from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research gave an inspired lecture about abrupt climate change. I’m going to paraphrase his compelling description of a tipping point. His analogy begins with an explorer traveling downstream by canoe on the Niagara River . He can hear an immense roar in the distance, but doesn’t recognize it as being the massive falls. The current becomes faster and more irresistible, and by the time he realizes that he is going to cascade over the immense verge plunging to certain death, it is too late to paddle to the shore. The time to have done so was behind him.
In other words, tipping points are by definition seen only in hindsight. They aren’t recognized ahead of time, or even as they occur, except possibly by a few odd Cassandras, who are borderline insane by normal standards.
Probably one of the foremost scholars on ecological tipping points is Anthony Barnosky of UC Berkeley. He was lead author with 22 colleagues of a pivotal study published in Nature, warning of impending tipping points in reductions to biodiversity. Their point of reference in 2012 was the time frame of “within a few generations”. Now he and his wife Elizabeth Hadley, also a paleobiologist from Stanford, have published a book, titled “End Game - Tipping Point for Planet Earth?”. This time around, according to a review in Newsweek, they have upped the ante and warn that the world will tip into environmental and social catastrophe within 20 years. Interestingly, the snarky reviewer inquires:
“Do we really need a wake-up call? Another one? Because the world arguably woke up to the Barnosky message long ago. The canon of eschatological literature is old and long. The trouble is that we've stopped listening to the warnings. Indeed it sometimes seems as though the louder the alarm clock, the more inclined we are, these days, to roll over and hit the snooze button.”
He then describes the Barnosky/Hadley juggernaut to effect their research:
“There is more than a touch of missionary zeal in the way they have travelled the world, sometimes with their two young daughters strapped into baby carriers (the authors are Californian, after all), in order to attend international conferences in Africa, measure the retreat of the Himalayan pika, or record the blood toxicity of Costa Rican bats. Each chapter is prefaced with another illustrative tale from this adventurous and enviable life, to jolly along the science.”
So despite their long-held conviction that earth cannot sustain the current level of population and consumption, they have two young children and travel around the world to prove it. That makes sense, right?
The review ends with the following:
“When tipping points are reached, the change can be violent as well as sudden, like the moment that water reaches boiling point. Endgame may amount to a triumph of hope over experience, but you cannot fault the authors' determination to try to warn us.”
Can’t we? They warn us, but they do not heed their own warnings. I think that is quite likely because, deep down, they know that the tipping point for maintaining the healthy, thriving, magnificent panorama of life has already been passed, some time ago. The exquisitely complex tapestry of life is unraveling, it is inevitable and irreversible - scientists now know that marine animals are dying of domoic acid from toxic algae, that corals are already doomed by acidification, that climate chaos will worsen, that we have poisoned the air, water and soil. It’s risible that they justify their travel and grant money by claiming more research is needed, and continue the farcical pretense that the tipping points await perpetually in the future.
I recently re-connected with an old friend, I’ll call her Meredith. She has retired as an agricultural studies teacher for high school students, and now that our children are grown and we have more time on our hands, we’ve been catching up once a week, having lunch together and taking our dogs for walks in the woods.
Meredith is the product of an ultra-conservative background, and is even a Donald Trump supporter - but in that increasingly common bizarre confluence of far right and far left, I discovered that she’s a bit of a catastrophist too.
In her case, the suspicion that the future will be less than rosy derives from her concern about agricultural pesticide and growth hormone use. She thinks that the government agencies aren’t doing anything to protect the public from toxic accumulations in our food, and thinks not only are humans being poisoned but so is the rest of nature. A recent exposé about how a senior researcher at USDA was hounded out of his laboratory for reporting on the relationship between chemicals and the disappearance of pollinators like bees and butterflies corroborates her fears.
Unlike most people who are oblivious to the phenomena of shifting baselines, Meredith has also noticed the incremental deterioration of the landscape. She grew up on a dirt road, riding horses every day, and the subsequent development which has obliterated the fields and woods she once roamed as a child has led her to conclude that there are far, far too many people in the world - and that we are bumping up against implacable limits.
I can’t explain why but Meredith ate a tuna fish sandwich every day for lunch since she was a kid, and she found out her mercury levels are trending through the roof. So when I said that there is some pollution you can see, and some you can’t, she readily agreed. Thus it wasn’t much of a leap for her when I said that all the fallen trees and broken branches she noticed around her home and in the woods around mine during our walks was the result of invisible airborne ozone and acidic depositions in the soil and water.
She told me that she first noticed trees in decline around her house about five years ago, and initially worried that it was a result of discharge from a water softener she had installed. But then she quickly added that she realized the trees far away from the septic system were just as sickly. I was surprised to find someone whose observations mirrored mine, because I am usually scoffed at. At the end of our conversation she said ruefully that she had long suspected something was very wrong with the forests, but hadn’t wanted to articulate it. Because it’s really scary, and depressing. I told her I cried almost every night for months when I first realized the trees are all dying.
Last fall a census by Yale foresters demonstrated that even without pollution, humans have removed half of earth’s trees already, and we are losing 15 billion trees every year. At this rate, they calculate there would be NONE left in 300 years. Much of the loss is due to logging, but even before that, humans burned forests to improve hunting and foraging. People set fire to Madagascar’s forests 1,000 years ago, turning it into grassland for pasturing cattle. Worse still, researchers have found that even without logging and burning, the hunting of large mammals that is occurring in places like the Amazon and Africa would eventually doom the forests even if they’re not cut, because those animals are essential to disburse the seeds. Without them the rest of the ecosystem system will collapse.
Meanwhile the concentration of nitrous oxide, a byproduct of burning fuel and agricultural fertilization, and a primary precursor to ozone, is skyrocketing. Air pollution is already linked to heart disease, cancer, emphysema and asthma - now doctors are finding it is connected to the obesity epidemic and Alzheimer’s. How could we expect it to be any less injurious to trees that absorb it year after year? Several decades ago, there was widespread concern about the health of forests and then, a memo went out to the foresters that the problem had been solved, long-term fumigation and monitoring experiments were cancelled, and much of the funding evaporated. Yet, a few experts persisted and in 2012 a report was published which analyzed 4,057 plots from national and regional forest health surveys.
Titled “Susceptibility of Forests in the Northeastern USA to Nitrogen and Sulfur Deposition: Critical Load Exceedance and Forest Health”, the abstract states:
“We observed significant negative correlations between critical load exceedance and growth and crown density; we observed significant positive correlations of exceedance with declining vigor, with crown dieback and crown transparency. These results indicate that significant detrimental responses to atmospheric deposition are being observed across the northeastern USA.”
“…projected emissions of acidifying S and N compounds are expected to have continuing negative impacts on forests. Atmospheric S and N deposition have contributed to acidification of soils and surface waters, export of nutrient cations, and mobilization of aluminum in soils, which can be toxic to plants and other biota. When exports of nutrient cations are greater than inputs to an ecosystem, soil nutrients may decrease to inadequate levels, a condition known as cation depletion. Cation depletion may result in a wide range of forest health problems: reduced growth rates and increased susceptibility of forests to climate change; pest and pathogen stress, which results in reduced forest health, reduced timber yield, increased mortality; and eventual changes in forest species composition.”
“Twenty-one tree species in the northeastern USA exhibit detrimental impacts from atmospheric deposition.”
So, it’s not all in my imagination.
If only love remains - whatever that means - it’s not, and has never been, enough. Not when, like its close cousin hope, it is an intellectual construct that merely serves to enable humanity to rationalize the destruction of the rest of life on this exceptional, extraordinarily and perhaps even uniquely glorious planet.
Thanks for listening.
Bonus for readers: click here to see pictures of newly discovered ancient oaks in a forgotten castle park in England. And then ask yourself why trees that huge aren't found everywhere.