Friday, April 1, 2016

Earth Embalmed

There are so many calamities - fish kills in Florida and birds falling out of the skies, epic floods and droughts, the slowing of the ocean currents - that when I prepared the 26th Dispatch From The Endocene I left out a major incident I had intended to include - the abrupt and near total coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  The fact that it is just one item on the roster of grotesque environmental disasters that will catalyze NO change whatsoever in the engine of human civilization - even though it has to be the most egregious, most atrocious, most stunningly heinous example of anthropogenic ecocide - is astonishing. It is proof, were any to be needed, that nothing - nothing, not an ice free Arctic, not a huge ice shelf breaking off Antarctica raising sea levels a foot in a week, not thousands of deaths in a heat wave, not storms so violent they lift boulders from the bottom of the sea - NOTHING will stop people from availing themselves blindly and greedily to the bounteous largess of Earth...until it is all gone, and there is none left.  The debacle in the reef is the latest example of humanity ceaselessly rendering the biosphere into a morgue.  It’s as awful as though all the forests were dying, and we managed to ignore it.

Oh, wait.

Following is the transcript for the April 1, 2016 broadcast, and no, sadly, it’s not a joke.  You can listen to it streaming at the Extinction Radio website tonight, where it will be archived with the rest of the show, or listen here.

Thanks as always Gene, and welcome listeners to the 26th Dispatch From the Endocene.

Even in the best of times, people search for meaning and crave a sense of purpose in their lives.  It seems a very human trait to wonder who we are and why we are here, effectively alone as we drift through the universe.  So often, we find ourselves helpless victims to the incoherent caprice of nature, and it is difficult to find the stability we desire when we are buffeted by forces we cannot control.  Sometimes we respond with despair, and sometimes with hope, when we are confronted with the randomness and cruelty of an arbitrary fate.

How much more difficult is it then, to contemplate the irrevocable loss of species due to our own actions, not to say our own extinction from relentless destruction and pollution.  The prospect of human extinction lays waste to all philosophy and faith that places humanity at the center of cosmic consciousness, and posits existence beyond materialism.  How can we respond when we acknowledge the shrapnel of our explosive growth has rendered the biosphere unsalvageable?  In the midst of ever more evidence of horrifically accelerating climate change, from melting Antarctica and sea level rise to the lack of any remaining carbon budget, the ecological tipping points are fast receding into the past.  We have entered a phase of universal, rancid toxicity in the air, water and soil, ultimately to become inhospitable to all but the most intrepid simple organisms.

The conundrum of being authentic in a contrived system has always been absurd, and for many who are aware of the ubiquitous ominous trends it becomes an insurmountable task to detect joy in face of the Tragedy of the Commons.  That parable is one of the most potent descriptions of how intractable the plight of humanity has become, now that we are suffocating and squeezed on this fragile, finite beleaguered planet.  The interests of the individual must eventually doom the entire community, and then of course the individual with it.

In 1651 Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, where he wrote “…in the first place, I put forth a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”

The response as formulated by Albert Camus still resonates; make your own meaning.  Find what you love to do, and do it.  In these times careening towards collapse of many sorts, I would add, bear witness.  It is a futile act, but I feel it is my moral obligation to the life we are consuming…and I don’t know what else to do.

So this Dispatch is going to consist of acknowledging some events and issues that deserve to be known, starting with the absolute inevitability of human extinction.  All of the links will be posted on my blog, Wit’s End.  It will be illustrated with the art of Ruud Van Empel.  I first saw his work on a Facebook post, accompanied by fatuously enthusiastic endorsements from commenters who were certain that the ridiculously large lotus leaves are from an actual, idyllic forest on a Caribbean island.

Suspecting there was something more enigmatic being communicated (albeit too esoteric for the average face booker), I looked him up and discovered a fascinating hyper-realist whose digital collage photographs were described by one critic as “the subtle undermining of true Paradise”.  Another observed:  “Everything is so consistently, motionlessly, too beautiful to be true that it seems immediately suspicious and perhaps even threatening.  Ruud van Empel makes technically perfect use of these ambiguities.”  Look carefully at the mask of serenity and you will find themes of innocence and historic guilt, exploitation and redemption, wilderness and artifice.

Probably one of the most important and penetrating articles that will be swiftly forgotten was published in, of all places, Climate Network News.  With the ominous title, “Renewable energy demands the undoable”, the article discusses a study called “The 21st century population-energy-climate nexus” published in the journal Energy Policy.  This analysis decisively shatters the fairytale that humanity can power modern civilization with renewable energy in anything like the timeframe required to spare us from utterly catastrophic climate change. Right now nearly 1/5 of the world’s population lives without access to electricity yet, we need to reduce emissions immediately.  Currently renewables are only a tiny portion of the mix - just 10.3% of electricity and that’s including hydropower, a highly damaging source.  Obviously, all transport is almost completely dependent on burning fuel.

This is the sort of factual reality that climate crusaders don’t want to hear, because it completely refutes the ability of their idol, new technology, to save the day and enable industrial civilization to continue - never mind extend to those people who have yet to enjoy its benefits, equivocal though they may be.

The study echoes and reinforces the conclusions made by Ozzie Zehner, the author of “Green Illusions”.  In an interview from 2013, he was quoted as follows:

“The modern environmental movement has rolled over to become an outlet for loggers, energy firms and car companies to plug into. It is now primarily a social media platform for consumerism, growth and energy production - an institutionalized philanderer of green illusions. If you need evidence, just go to any climate rally and you’ll see a strip mall of stands for green products, green jobs and green energy. These will do nothing to solve the crisis we face, which is not an energy crisis but rather a crisis of consumption.”

“There is an impression that we have a choice between fossil fuels and clean energy technologies such as solar cells and wind turbines. That choice is an illusion. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels through every stage of their life. Alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels for mining operations, fabrication plants, installation, ongoing maintenance and decommissioning. Also, due to the irregular output of wind and solar, these technologies require fossil fuel plants to be running alongside them at all times. Most significantly, alternative energy financing relies on the kind of growth that fossil fuels drive.

In his book of philosophy “Straw Dogs”, John Gray wrote in 2007:  “The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, “Western civilisation” or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.”

This brings us to the latest example of celebrity hypocrisy, in which Jeff Bridges stars in a video urging a reduction in the use of disposable plastic products with an emphasis on shopping bags, water bottles and straws.  Somewhat disingenuously, the emphasis is on "single-use" plastic, as though the earth cares how many times plastic is used before it enters the landfill and ocean for eternity. Not to mention, that the footprint of replacements like metal water bottles isn’t insignificant either.  Coincidentally or perhaps due to some internet spying algorithm, after I watched that video a link popped up on my home page urging me to check out Jeff Bridge’s “magnificent home beyond stunning” which turns out to be an obscenely enormous mansion full of expensive furniture, carpets and paintings each one of which, I am certain, was delivered swathed in protective single use plastic wrapping.

Meanwhile, a post-mortem on thirteen stranded whales found they were emaciated, their stomachs full of plastic, and a study finds that we all, especially the adventurous nature-loving campers, hikers, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts among us, are sending 2,000 plastic microfibers into the water system every time we wash one article of fleece clothing…and indeed fleece and Gore-Tex clothing is the biggest source of the more than 100 million particles of microplastic being deposited via wastewater into the fiord from a community of a mere 2,000 on the island of Svalbard.  100 million particles.  EVERY DAY.

Hungry killer whales are looking for the salmon they usually eat off the shores of the Pacific Northwest at this time of year, but they’re not finding any.  At the mouth of the Columbia River spring chinook are at around 1% of their historic numbers, and 96% of sockeye died before finishing their journey up the Snake River last year.  In March it was reported that a massive algae bloom killed 23 million salmon in Chile.  “Oceana, an environmental group in Chile, says the problem has been made worse by nitrate-rich runoff from livestock from nearby land around the salmon farms, which are typically offshore or in estuaries.”

And small wonder.  “Nitrogen fertilizer applied to farmers fields has been contaminating rivers and lakes and leaching into drinking water wells for more than 80 years. The study, published this week in a special issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters, reveals that elevated nitrate concentrations in rivers and lakes will remain high for decades, even if farmers stop applying nitrogen fertilizers today.  The researchers have discovered that nitrogen is building up in soils, creating a long-term source of nitrate pollution in ground and surface waters.”

Lastly I would like to make a few remarks about our corroded trees and embalmed forests.  Of course, we continue the tradition of chopping trees down, either for their lumber or to make room for so-called development or mining.  The Atlantic magazine has a shocking layout of images in an article titled “The Violent Remaking of Appalachia”, which is well worth a visit.  Recently it has been reported that over the objections of many in the public, the government of Poland is going ahead with plans to raze parts of Europe’s last primeval forest.  The article says “It is home to 20,000 animal species, including 250 types of bird and 62 species of mammals—among them Europe’s largest, the bison.

...Europe’s tallest trees, firs towering 50 metres high (164 feet), and oaks and ashes of 40 metres, also flourish here, in an ecosystem unspoiled for more than 10 millennia.”  The government claims they have to log it to protect the trees that haven’t yet been infested with beetles…and in this instance they might not be lying.

Biotic attacks are epidemics everywhere in the world.  The UK Guardian reports that between a disease and a beetle, the ash tree is likely to be “wiped out” in the UK and Europe and separately, that a disease with a “massive list of different host plants” is mutating and migrating.  “First confirmed in Europe three years ago when it ran rampant across olive plantations in southern Italy, a subspecies of Xylella has since been detected in southern France, where it has destroyed vines and lavender plants, and in Corsica. Xylella fastidiosa has also been found in both South and North America where it is commonly referred to as “phony peach disease” and where it has caused severe damage to citrus and coffee plantations. In New Jersey it has attacked more than a third of the state’s urban trees.”

Over in Hawaii a previously unknown fungus is decimating that state’s most iconic tree, the Ohia.  One article says, “In 2012, diseased ohia covered about 2,300 acres in Puna. By 2014, dead ohia littered more than 15,000 acres of pristine rainforest. The disease was marching across the island of Hawaii, uncontained.”

If you want to see truly harrowing documentation of forest decline, check a video at the site Ready For Wildfire where you can learn about the bark beetle in California.  There are some interesting facts there about the 29 million trees that have died in this four year drought and 58 million more suffering from “severe canopy water losses”.  It says, “Ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, and pinyon pines are most impacted by bark beetles, but many trees have died just from lack of water in the current drought. Most other pine species, white fir and incense-cedar are also heavily impacted by the prolonged drought and by bark beetles. There is also an increase in tree mortality among oaks, although it is primarily attributed to drought, not bark beetles.”

Maps of mortality by year can be seen at the state government Tree Mortality Viewer [click on continue at the bottom of the page].  Interestingly, there is almost no documented dieback in their earliest graphic from 2012, yet, when I visited California before that, it was quite obvious to me that the trees were in serious decline already.  The bark beetle faqs page states:  “Under normal conditions, bark beetles renew the forest by killing older trees and those weakened by disease, drought, smog or physical damage.”

Exactly.  Beetles are opportunistic, preying on trees weakened by pollution, just like all the fungus and disease rampant in the world today.  A thirteen-year study in China determined that smog-creating nitrogen emissions in the atmosphere are causing a “silent massacre” of the entire world’s forests.

Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass posted a blog warning about the dangers of falling trees.  He stated “During virtually every major windstorm that has hit our region, someone has died from a falling branch or trunk,” and went on with the assumption that it is perfectly normal for that to occur.  IT IS NOT.  The trees are dying; that is why they are falling on people and killing them.  In one article about a death in New Hampshire just this week, it was stated that in wind gusts at the highest 46 mph, a tree killed a man in his truck, adding “The tree did not seem to be rotted”. This was an idiotic statement since anyone looking at the pictures that accompany the article can see that, indeed the trunk was black with rot.

Unfortunately, it seems that almost the only people who realize our trees are being poisoned are convinced that it is from a chemtrail conspiracy, or radiation of some sort.  You can watch one woman, in South Carolina, demonstrate how pathetically sick they are in her neighborhood.

The New Internationalist published an article by Chris Rose in 1988 in which he discusses “tree blindness”.  I will let him have the last word on what is happening to our forests, and why still, nothing is being done about it, with some excerpts.  He gave it the simple title:

The Forest is Dying

“In conifer trees the needles fall years early, often first turning a sickly yellow indicating a shortage of essential metals such as magnesium. As the decline progresses the tree loses its ability to feed itself through photosynthesis (because the leaf area is reduced) and in its weakened state falls victim to diseases. In deciduous species such as the beech and oak the pattern is similar. Official surveys show that over half of Britains broadleaved trees have lost a quarter or more of their leaf area. In fact Britains oak and beech are probably the most damaged in Europe.

“Like the much-cited canary in the coal-mine, the dying forests are potent indicators of what is to become of us, for the chemicals that cause acid rain also attack people. Water on already slightly acid rocks and sands becomes more acid with pollution, releasing toxic metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury and aluminium. This last, it is claimed, accounts for the high rates of Alzheimers disease (senile dementia) in southern Norway.

“Vehicle exhausts spew out oxides of nitrogen and hydrocarbons which include cancer-inducing chemicals. Diesel is particularly rich in such pollution. Together in the air, these chemicals react in sunlight to form ozone, a substance which is essential outside the atmosphere where it protects the earth from harmful ultra-violet rays. Inside the atmosphere, however, it is a pollutant which eats through leaf-cell walls, making them permeable to acidic rainfall, and leaching out key nutrients. Ozone also attacks the lungs of mammals and birds. The American bald eagle used as a mascot at the Los Angeles Olympics died from lung disease caused by air pollution.”

“…air pollution once concentrated in urban areas is now spread thinly over the previously clean countryside. Ice cores analyzed from the Arctic and Antarctic show that eventually it reaches there too.Only recently have the effects of acid rain on trees begun to be recognized, which may be one reason why the implications of acid rain for humans have not really hit home. As Canadian Gilles Gagnon wrote in 1986: Each year the beauty of the forest is somewhat diminished but one gets used to it and finds it natural to see trees withering along the roadside. The same could be said of almost every country in which the insidious decline has taken hold.

“When the blight first started to be recognized in West Germany, slogans were daubed on the rocks of the worst affected Black Forest hillsides. Do not weep forest, said one, the desert will not last forever. Others referred to the Christmas carol, Oh Tannenbaum, which celebrates the beauty of the silver fir tree, a tree which not only occupies a central place in German folk-mythology but has been hardest hit by waldsterben. Yet within a year or so, the trees were being felled and others planted. After all, they look healthy. The signs were scrubbed from the rocks at the request of the local hoteliers. Acid rain and dying forests, they said, were bad for business. If it couldnt be cured then perhaps it should at least be denied.

“The prospect of a civilization which can happily accept the Black Forest without trees is more than unsettling. On this basis attacks of tree blindness become an act of mass delusion as society turns its back on an apparently insoluble problem. The question is whether we open our eyes before the delusion becomes suicidal.”

I made a video called The Silent War on Trees, which ends with a poem by Stanley Kunitz, written in 1958.

In closing, I’d like to read it.

The War Against the Trees

The man who sold his lawn to standard oil
Joked with his neighbors come to watch the show
While the bulldozers, drunk with gasoline,
Tested the virtue of the soil
Under the branchy sky
By overthrowing first the privet-row.
Forsythia-forays and hydrangea-raids
Were but the preliminaries to a war
Against the great-grandfather of the town,
So freshly lopped and maimed.
They struck again and again,
And with each elm a century went down.
All day the hireling engines charged the trees,
Subverting them by hacking underground
In grub-dominions, where dark summer
’s mole
Rampages through his halls,
Till a northern seizure shook
Those crowns, forcing the giants to their knees.
I saw the ghosts of children at their games
Racing beyond their childhood in the shade,
And while the green world turned its death-foxed page
And a red wagon wheeled,
I watched them disappear
Into the suburbs of their grievous age.
Ripped from the craters much too big for hearts
The club-roots bared their amputated coils,
Raw gorgons matted blind, whose pocks and scars
Cried Moon! on a corner lot
One witness-moment, caught
In the rear-view mirrors of the passing cars.

Thanks for listening.