Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

The storms referenced in the earlier version of this post were civilization-ending cataclysms. The succession of North American hurricanes and earthquakes earlier this month of September 2017 were natural disasters. I would say that September was unprecedented in history, but reliable weather records do not extend very far back in human history and the geological record extending back into human prehistory would suggest that, except perhaps for their concentration within the span of a month, the latest storms are nothing out of the ordinary. Some have even theorized that hurricanes and earthquakes could be interrelated. In the wider context of weather history, this brief period of destructive activity may still be rather mild. Already in the last twenty years we’ve experienced a series of 50-, 100- and 500-year weather events that would suggest exactly what climate scientists have been saying, namely, that higher global average temperatures and more atmospheric moisture will lead to more activity in the category of superstorms. Throw drought, flood, and desertification into the mix. This (or worse, frankly) may have been the old normal when global average temperatures were several degrees warmer during periods of hothouse earth. All indications are that we’re leaving behind garden earth, the climate steady state (with a relatively narrow band of global temperature variance) enjoyed for roughly 12,000 years.

Our response to the latest line of hurricanes that struck the Gulf, Florida, and the Caribbean has been characterized as a little tepid considering we had the experience of Katrina from which to learn and prepare, but I’m not so sure. True, hurricanes can be seen hundreds of miles and days away, allowing folks opportunity to either batten down the hatches or flee the area, but we have never been able to handle mass exodus, typically via automobile, and the sheer destructive force of the storms overwhelms most preparations and delays response. So after Katrina, it appeared for several days that the federal government’s response was basically this: you’re on your own; that apparent response occurred again especially in Puerto Rico, which like New Orleans quickly devolved into a true humanitarian crisis (and is not yet over). Our finding (in a more charitable assessment on my part) is that despite foreknowledge of the event and past experience with similar events, we can’t simply swoop in and smooth things out after the storms. Even the first steps of recovery take time.

I’ve cautioned that rebuilding on the same sites, with the reasonable expectation of repeat catastrophes in a destabilized climate that will spawn superstorms reducing entire cities to garbage heaps, is a poor option. No doubt we’ll do it anyway, at least partially; it’s already well underway in Houston. I’ve also cautioned that we need to brace for a diaspora as climate refugees abandon destroyed and inundated cities and regions. It’s already underway with respect to Puerto Rico. This is a storm of an entirely different sort (a flood, actually) and can also been seen from hundreds of miles and weeks, months, years away. And like superstorms, a diaspora from the coasts, because of the overwhelming force and humanitarian crisis it represents, is not something for which we can prepare adequately. Still, we know it’s coming, like a 20- or 50-year flood.

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rant on/

As the next in an as-yet unnumbered series of Storms of the Century (I predict more than a dozen at least) is poised to strike nearly the entirety of the State of Florida, we know with confidence from prior experience, recent and not so recent, that any lessons we might take regarding how human habitation situated along or near coastlines vulnerable to extreme weather events, now occurring with increasing frequency and vehemence, will remain intransigently unlearned. Instead, we’ll begin rebuilding on the very same sites as soon as construction labor and resources can be mustered and deployed. Happened in New Orleans and New Jersey; is about to happen in Houston; and will certainly happen all across Florida — even the fragile Florida Keys. I mean, shit, we can’t do without The Magic Kingdom and other attractions in the central-Florida tourist mecca, now can we?

This predictable spin around the dance floor might look like a tragicomic circus waltz (e.g., The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), or even out-of-tune, lopsided calliope music from the carousel, except that positioning ourselves right back in harm’s way would be better characterized as a danse macabre. I dub it the Builder’s Waltz, which could also be the Rebuilder’s Rumba, the Catastrophe Tango, the Demolition Jive … take your pick.

Obstinate refusal to apprehend reality as it slams into us is celebrated as virtue these days. Can’t lose hope even as dark forces coalesce all around us, right? Was it always so? Still, an inkling might be dawning on some addle-brained deniers that perhaps science-informed global warming and climate change news might actually be about something with real-world impact, such as dramatic reduction of oil refinery output or a lost citrus crop. So much for illusions of business as usual continuing unhindered into the foreseeable future. Instead, our future looks more like dominoes lined up to fall — like the line of hurricanes formed in the Atlantic. Good luck hunkering down and weathering once-in-a-lifetime storms that just keep coming. And rebuilding the same things in the same places, well, just let it go, man, ’cuz it’s already gone.

rant off/

Previous blogs on this topic are here and here.

Updates to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists resetting the metaphorical doomsday clock hands used to appear at intervals of 3–7 years. Updates have been issued in each of the last three years, though the clock hands remained in the same position from 2015 to 2016. Does that suggest raised geopolitical instability or merely resumed paranoia resulting from the instantaneous news cycle and radicalization of society and politics? The 2017 update resets the minute hand slightly forward to 2½ minutes to midnight:

doomsdayclock_black_2-5mins_regmark2028129For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way …

The principal concern of the Bulletin since its creation has been atomic/nuclear war. Recent updates include climate change in the mix. Perhaps it is not necessary to remind regular readers here, but the timescales for these two threats are quite different: global thermonuclear war (a term from the 1980s when superpowers last got weird and paranoid about things) could erupt almost immediately given the right lunacy provocation, such as the sabre-rattling now underway between the U.S. and North Korea, whereas climate change is an event typically unfolding across geological time. The millions of years it usually takes to manifest climate change fully and reach a new steady state (hot house earth vs. ice age earth), however, appears to have been accelerated by human inputs (anthropogenic climate change, or as Guy McPherson calls it, abrupt climate change) to only a few centuries.

Nuclear arsenals around the world are the subject of a curious article at Visual Capitalist (including several reader-friendly infographics) by Nick Routley. The estimated number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal has risen since the last time I blogged about this in 2010. I still find it impossible to fathom why more than a dozen nukes are necessary, or in my more charitable moments toward the world’s inhabitants, why any of them are necessary. Most sober analysts believe we are far safer today than, say, the 1950s and early 1960s when brinkmanship was anybody’s game. I find this difficult to judge considering the two main actors today on the geopolitical stage are both witless, unpredictable, narcissistic maniacs. Moreover, the possibility of some ideologue (religious or otherwise) getting hold of WMDs (not necessarily nukes) and creating mayhem is increasing as the democratization of production filters immense power down to lower and lower elements of society. I for one don’t feel especially safe.

Allow me to propose a hypothetical, to conduct a thought experiment if you will.

Let’s say that the powers that be, our governmental and corporate overlords, have been fully aware and convinced of impending disaster for some time, decades even. What to do with that burdensome information? How to prepare the public or themselves? Make the truth openly public and possibly spark a global panic or bury the information, denying and obfuscating when news eventually got out? Let’s say that, early on, the decision was made to bury the information and keep plodding through a few more blissfully ignorant decades as though nothing were amiss. After all, prophecies of disaster, extrapolating simple trend lines (such as population growth), were not uncommon as early as the 18th and 19th centuries. Science had made sufficient progress by the 1970s to recognize without much controversy that problems with industrial civilization were brewing and would soon overflow, overtaking our ability to maintain control over the processes we set in motion or indeed ourselves. Thus, at the intuitive level of deep culture, we initiated the ecology movement, the predecessor of environmentalism, and experienced the (first) international oil crisis. The decision to bury the prognosis for civilization (doom!) resulted in keeping a lid on things until the information swung fully into public view in the middle 2000s (the decade, not the century), thanks to a variety of scientists not among the power elite who sounded the alarms anew. At that point, obfuscation and disinformation became the dominant strategies.

Meanwhile, to keep the lights on and the store shelves stocked, the powers that be launched a campaign of massive debt spending, stealing from a future we would never reach anyway, and even dabbled at modest terraforming to forestall the worst by spraying chemicals in the atmosphere, creating global dimming. This program, like many others, were denied and made into conspiracy theories (chemtrails vs. contrails), enabling the public to ignore the obvious evidence of climate change and resulting slo-mo environmental collapse. Public uprising and outrage were easily quelled with essentially the same bread and circuses in which the Classical Romans indulged as their empire was in the midst of a protracted collapse. Modern global industrial empire will not experience the same centuries-long disintegration.

Now, I’ll admit, I don’t actually believe much of this. As with most conspiracies, this hypothetical doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Nor do the powers that be demonstrate competence sufficient to pull off even routine programs, much less extravagant ones. However, elements are undoubtedly true, such as the knowledge that energy policy and resources simply won’t meet anticipated demand with global population still swelling out of control. Neither will food production. Rather than make a difficult and questionable philosophical decision to serve the public interest by hiding the truth and keeping modern civilization going until the breaking point of a hard crash, at which point few would survive (or want to), the easy decision was probably made to ignore and obfuscate the truth, do nothing to keep the worst ravages of global industry from hastening our demise, and gather to themselves all financial resources, leaving everyone else in the lurch. The two basic options are to concern ourselves with everyone’s wellbeing over time vs. one’s own position in the short term.

In case the denial and obfuscation has worked on you, the reader of this doom blog, please consider (if you dare) this lengthy article at New York Magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells. Headings are these:

  1. “Doomsday”
  2. Heat Death
  3. The End of Food
  4. Climate Plagues
  5. Unbreathable Air
  6. Perpetual War
  7. Permanent Economic Collapse
  8. Poisoned Oceans
  9. The Great Filter

No one writes this stuff just to scare the public and get attention. Rather, it’s about telling the truth and whistle-blowing. While captains if industry and kings of the realm slumber, fattened and self-satisfied upon their beds, at least some of the rest of us recognize that the future is barrelling at us with the same indifference for human wellbeing (or the natural world) that our leaders have shown.

According to Hal Smith of The Compulsive Explainer (see my blogroll), the tragedy of our time is, simply put, failed social engineering. Most of his blog post is quoted below:

Americans, for example, have decided to let other forces manage their nation — and not let Americans themselves manage it. At least this is what I see happening, with the election of Trump. They have handed the management of their country over to a man with a collection of wacky ideas — and they feel comfortable with this. Mismanagement is going on everywhere — and why not include the government in this?

This is typical behavior for a successful society in decline. They cannot see what made them successful, has been taken too far — and is now working against them. The sensible thing for them to do is back off for awhile, analyze their situation — and ask “What is going wrong here?” But they never do this — and a collapse ensues.

In our present case, the collapse involves a global society based on Capitalism — that cannot adapt itself to a Computer-based economy. The Software ecosystem operates differently — it is based on cooperation, not competition.

Capitalism was based on just that — Capital — money making money. And it was very successful — for those it favored. Money is still important in the Computer economy — people still have to be paid. But what they are being paid for has changed — information is now being managed, something different entirely.

Hardware is still important — but that is not where the Big Money is being made. It is now being made in Computers, and their Software.

I’m sympathetic to this view but believe that a look back through history reveals something other than missed opportunities and too-slow adaptation as we fumbled our way forward, namely, repeated catastrophic failures. Such epic fails include regional and global wars, genocides, and societal collapses that rise well above the rather bland term mismanagement. A really dour view of history, taking into account more than a few truly vicious, barbaric episodes, might regard the world as a nearly continuous stage of horrors from which we periodically take refuge, and the last of these phases is drawing quickly to a close.

The breakneck speed of technological innovation and information exchange has resulted not in Fukuyama’s mistakenly exuberant “end of history” (kinda-sorta winning the Cold War but nevertheless losing the peace?) but instead an epoch where humans are frankly left behind by follow-on effects of their own unrestrained restlessness. Further, if history is a stage of horrors, then geopolitics is theater of the absurd. News reports throughout the new U.S. presidential administration, still less than 6 months in (more precisely, 161 days or 23 weeks), tell of massive economic and geopolitical instabilities threatening to collapse the house of cards with only a slight breeze. Contortions press agents and politicized news organs go through to provide cover for tweets, lies, and inanities emanating from the disturbed mind of 45 are carnival freak show acts. Admittedly, not much has changed over the previous two administrations — alterations of degree only, not kind — except perhaps to demonstrate beyond any shadow of doubt that our elected, appointed, and purchased leaders (acknowledging many paths to power) are fundamentally incompetent to deal effectively with human affairs, much less enact social engineering projects beyond the false happiness of Facebook algorithms that hide bad news. Look no further than the egregious awfulness of both presidential candidates in the last election coughed up like hairballs from the mouths of their respective parties. The aftermath of those institutional failures finds both major parties in shambles, further degraded than their already deplorable states prior to the election.

So how much worse can things get? Well, scary as it sounds, lots. The electrical grid is still working, water is still flowing to the taps, and supply lines continue to keep store shelves stocked with booze and brats for extravagant holiday celebrations. More importantly, we in the U.S. have (for now, unlike Europe) avoided repetition of any major terrorist attacks. But everyone with an honest ear to the ground recognizes our current condition as the proverbial calm before the storm. For instance, we’re threatened by the first ice-free Arctic in the history of mankind later this year and a giant cleaving off of the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica within days. In addition, drought in the Dakotas will result in a failed wheat harvest. Guy McPherson (in particular, may well be others) has been predicting for years that abrupt, nonlinear climate change when the poles warm will end the ability to grow grain at scale, leading to worldwide famine, collapse, and near-term extinction. Seems like we’re passing the knee of the curve. Makes concerns about maladaptation and failed social engineering pale by comparison.

When I first wrote about this topic back in July 2007, I had only just learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and similar garbage gyres in others oceans). Though I’d like to report simply that nothing has changed, the truth is that conditions have worsened. Some commentators have rationalized contextualized the issue by observing that the Earth, the environment, the ecosphere, the biosphere, Gaia, or whatever one wishes to call the natural world has always been under assault by humans, that we’ve never truly lived in balance with nature. While that perspective may be true in a literal sense, I can’t help gnashing my teeth over the sheer scale of the assault in the modern industrial age (extending back 250+ years but really getting going once the steam engine was utilized widely). At that point, production and population curves angled steeply upwards, where they continue point as though there be no biophysical limits to growth or the amount and degree of destruction that can be absorbed by the biosphere. Thus, at some undetermined point, industrial scale became planetary scale and humans became terraformers.

News reports came in earlier this month that the remote and uninhabited (by humans) Henderson Island in the Pacific is now an inadvertent garbage dump, with estimates of over 17 tons of debris littering its once-pristine shores.

17hendersonisland1-superjumbo

This despoliation is a collateral effect of human activity, not the predictable result of direct action, such as with the Alberta Tar Sands, another ecological disaster (among many, many others). In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes its mission as protecting human health and the environment and has established a Superfund to clean up contaminated sites. Think of this as a corporate subsidy, since the principal contaminators typically inflict damage in the course of doing business and extracting profit then either move on or cease to exist. Standard Oil is one such notorious entity. Now that the EPA is in the process of being defunded (and presumably on its way to being deauthorized) by the current administration of maniacs, the ongoing death-by-a-thousand-cuts suffered by the natural world will likely need to be revised to death-by-millions-of-cuts, a heedless acceleration of the death sentence humans have set in motion. In the meantime, industry is being given a freer hand to pollute and destroy. What could possibly go wrong?

If all this weren’t enough, another development darkened my brow recently: the horrific amount of space debris from decades of missions to put men, communications and surveillance satellites, and (one would presume) weapons in orbit. (Maybe the evil brainchild of inveterate cold warriors known unironically as “Star Wars” never actually came into being, but I wouldn’t place any bets on that.) This video from the Discovery Network gives one pause, no?

Admittedly, the dots are not actual size and so would not be as dense or even visible from the point of view of the visualization, but the number of items (20,000+ pieces) is pretty astonishing. (See this link as well.) This report describes some exotic technologies being bandied about to address problem of space junk. Of course, that’s just so that more satellites and spacecraft can be launches into orbit as private industry takes on the mantle once enjoyed exclusively by NASA and the Soviet space program. I suppose the explorer’s mindset never diminishes even as the most remote places on and now around Earth are no longer untouched but human refuse.

From the not-really-surprising-news category comes a New Scientist report earlier this month that the entire world was irradiated by follow-on effects of the Fukushima disaster. Perhaps it’s exactly as the article states: the equivalent of one X-ray. I can’t know with certainty, nor can bupkis be done about it by the typical Earth inhabitant (or the atypical inhabitant, I might add). Also earlier this month, a tunnel collapse at the Dept. of Energy’s Hanford nuclear waste storage site in Washington State gave everyone a start regarding possible or potential nearby release of radiation. Similar to Fukushima, I judge there is little by way of trust regarding accurate news or disclosure and fuck all anyone can do about any of it.

I’m far too convinced of collapse by now to worry too much about these Tinkerbells, knowing full well that what’s to come will be worse by many magnitudes of order when the firecrackers start popping due to inaction and inevitability. Could be years or decades away still; but as with other aspects of collapse, who knows precisely when? Risky energy plant operations and nuclear waste disposal issues promise to be with us for a very long time indeed. Makes it astonishing to think that we plunged full-steam ahead without realistic (i.e., politically acceptable) plans to contain the problems before creating them. Further, nuclear power is still not economically viable without substantial government subsidy. The likelihood of abandonment of this technological boondoggle seems pretty remote, though perhaps not as remote as the enormous expense of decommissioning all the sites currently operating.

These newsbits and events also reminded me of the despair I felt in 1986 on the heels of the Chernobyl disaster. Maybe in hindsight it’s not such a horrible thing to cede entire districts to nature for a period of several hundred years as what some have called exclusion or sacrifice zones. Absent human presence, such regions demonstrate remarkable resilience and profundity in a relatively short time. Still, it boggles the mind, doesn’t it, to think of two exclusion zones now, Chernobyl and Fukushima, where no one should go until, at the very least, the radioactive half-life has expired? Interestingly, that light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, seems to be telescoping even farther away from the date of the disaster, a somewhat predictable shifting of the goalposts. I’d conjecture that’s because contamination has not yet ceased and is actually ongoing, but again, what do I know?

On a lighter note, all this also put me in mind of the hardiness of various foodstuffs. God knows we consume loads of crap that can hardly be called food anymore, from shelf-stable fruit juices and bakery items (e.g., Twinkies) that never go bad to not-cheese used by Taco Bell and nearly every burger joint in existence to McDonald’s burgers and fries that refuse to spoil even when left out for months to test that very thing. It give me considerable pause to consider that foodstuff half-lives have been radically and unnaturally extended by creating abominable Frankenfoods that beggar the imagination. For example, strawberries and tomatoes used to be known to spoil rather quickly and thus couldn’t withstand long supply lines from farm to table; nor were they available year round. Rather sensibly, people grew their own when they could. Today’s fruits and veggies still spoil, but interventions undertaken to extend their stability have frequently come at the expense of taste and nutrition. Organic and heirloom markets have sprung up to fill those niches, which suggest the true cost of growing and distributing everyday foods that will not survive a nuclear holocaust.

I pull in my share of information about current events and geopolitics despite a practiced inattention to mainstream media and its noisome nonsense. (See here for another who turned off the MSM.) I read or heard somewhere (can’t remember where) that most news outlets and indeed most other media, to drive traffic, now function as outrage engines, generating no small amount of righteousness, indignation, anger, and frustration at all the things so egregiously wrong in our neighborhoods, communities, regions, and across the world. These are all negative emotions, though legitimate responses to various scourges plaguing us currently, many of which are self-inflicted. It’s enough aggregate awfulness to draw people into the street again in principled protest, dissent, and resistance; it’s not yet enough to effect change. Alan Jacobs comments about outrage engines, noting that sharing via retweets is not the same as caring. In the Age of Irony, a decontextualized “yo, check this out!” is nearly as likely to be interpreted as support rather than condemnation (or mere gawking for entertainment value). Moreover, pointing, linking, and retweeting are each costless versions of virtue signaling. True virtue makes no object of publicity.

So where do I get my outrage quotient satisfied? Here is a modest linkfest, in no particular order, of sites not already on my blogroll. I don’t habituate these sites daily, but I drop in, often skimming, enough to keep abreast of themes and events of importance. (more…)

I finished Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods (1995). He saved the best part of the book, an examination of Egyptian megalithic sites, for the final chapters and held back his final conclusion — more conjecture, really — for the tail end. The possible explanation Hancock offers for the destruction and/or disappearance of a supposed civilization long predating the Egyptian dynasties, the subject of the entire book, is earth-crust displacement, a theory developed by Charles Hapgood relating to polar shifts. Long story short, evidence demonstrates that the Antarctic continent used to be 2,000 miles away from the South Pole (about 30° from the pole) in a temperate zone and may have been, according to Hancock, the home of a seafaring civilization that had traveled and mapped the Earth. It’s now buried under ice. I find the explanation plausible, but I wonder how much the science and research has progressed since the publication of Fingerprints. I have not yet picked up Magicians of the Gods (2015) to read Hancock’s update but will get to it eventually.

Without having studied the science, several competing scenarios exist regarding how the Earth’s crust, the lithosphere, might drift, shift, or move over the asthenosphere. First, it’s worth recognizing that the Earth’s rotational axis defines the two poles, which are near but not coincident with magnetic north and south. Axial shifts are figured in relation to the crust, not the entire planet (crust and interior). From a purely geometric perspective, I could well imagine the crust and interior rotating as different speeds, but since we lack more than theoretical knowledge of the Earth’s liquid interior (the inner core is reputedly solid), only the solid portions at the surface of the sphere offer a useful frame of reference. The liquid surfaces (oceans, seas) obviously flow, too, but are also understood primarily in relation to the solid crust both below and above sea level.

The crust could wander slowly and continuously, shift all at once, or some combination of both. If all at once, the inciting event might be a sudden change in magnetic stresses that breaks the entire lithosphere loose or perhaps a gigantic meteor hit that knocks the planet as a whole off its rotational axis. Either would be catastrophic for living things that are suddenly moved into a substantially different climate. Although spacing of such events is unpredictable and irregular, occurring in geological time, Hancock assembles considerable evidence to conclude that the most recent such occurrence was probably about 12,000 BCE at the conclusion of the last glacial maximum or ice age. This would have been well within the time humans existed on Earth but long enough ago in our prehistory that human memory systems record events only as unreliable myth and legend. They are also recorded in stone, but we have yet to decipher their messages fully other than to demonstrate that significant scientific knowledge of astronomy and engineering were once possessed by mankind but was lost until redeveloped during the last couple of centuries.

As I read into Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock and learn more about antiquity, it becomes clear that weather conditions on Earth were far more hostile then (say, 15,000 years ago) than now. Looking way, way back into millions of years ago, scientists have plotted global average temperature and atmospheric carbon, mostly using ice cores as I understand it, yielding this graph:

co2-levels-over-time1

I’ve seen this graph before, which is often used by climate change deniers to show a lack of correlation between carbon and temperature. That’s not what concerns me. Instead, the amazing thing is how temperature careens up and down quickly (in geological time) between two limits, 12°C and 22°C, and forms steady states known at Ice Age Earth and Hot House Earth. According to the graph, we’re close to the lower limit. It’s worth noting that because of the extremely long timescale, the graph is considerably smoothed.

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