Posts Tagged ‘nature’

I attended a fundraiser a short while back. It’s familiar territory for me, filled with gifts culled from local businesses and corporations to be resold at auction, portable kitchens and bars to feed and libate guests to break down their inhibitions to giving, and lots of high heels and party dresses (with ample cleavage). Men rarely strut and parade the way the women do; tuxedos are the rare except. Secondary and tertiary activities are typical, often a DJ or live band that plays so loudly sensible people would flee the room rather than slowly go deaf. But monstrous volume in the era of amplified everything has dulled that reflex to nothingness. Or people are by now already deaf from habitual exposure to arena-rock volume filtered down to small venues. Folks simply, stupidly tough it out, ending the night with their ears ringing and their voices hoarse from screaming over the noise just to be heard.

Beneficiaries of fundraisers usually fall into two categories that are poorly served by American institutions: those seeking quality educations (including public schools that ought to be better funded through taxation) and folks suffering from catastrophic illness or disease that is ideally meant to be covered by health insurance but in practice is not. Auctioneers do pretty well enticing people to part with their money. It’s a true skill. But then, who goes to a fundraiser determined to hold tightly to their hard-earned cash? (Don’t answer that question.) Silent auctions may accompany the live auction, but the group vibe definitely contributes to some competition to outbid the next person (a wallet- or dick-measuring exercise?). Auction items are mostly luxury items, things normal Americans wouldn’t consider buying except when associated with charitable giving. Getting something for one’s charity (bought under or over its presumed market value) also shifts some portion of the philanthropic burden to those entities donating gifts.

All this is preliminary the most appallingly tone-deaf item offered for auction: a 4-person safari to a game preserve in South Africa to hunt and kill a wildebeest. When the auctioneer described the item, everyone in my vicinity looked at each other as if to say “what the fuck?” Certainly, humans have a long history of hunting game purely for sport (which is to say, not for food), and from the perspective of a South African safari outfitter, wild animals are a natural resource to be exploited the same way that, for instance, mining and agriculture is conducted throughout the world, but the last few years have seen a notable change of heart about killing animals, especially so-called romance animals (mostly large mammals, including whales, less so large fish), without need or admirable purpose. The outcry over an American dentist killing Cecil the Lion was an expression of that sentiment. So, too, was the killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child fell into the enclosure. (Personally, considering how few of them exist, I would privilege the life of the gorilla over the child, but that’s a mine field.) Pictures of Donald Trump’s sons standing over their trophy kills have also elicited significant disapproval. We are now acutely aware that wild animals are not an inexhaustible resource (and never were — consider the passenger pigeon).

I judged that bidding on the safari was no more or less robust than other auction items, but I mentioned aloud that if I were to bid on it, I would probably go on the safari but would also insist on merely paintballing the poor wildebeest, a relatively harmless proxy for killing it needlessly. Admittedly, the wildebeest would experience the same existential terror as if it were being hunted to death, but at least it would live. Or it would live until the next safari came round. Hunting and killing a wildebeest or other large game has never been on my bucket list, and its appearance at auction would not suddenly inspire me to add it to the list. That is the province of of a class of fools rich and insulated enough to still regard the world as their playground, with no thought of responsibility, stewardship, or consequences.

The last traffic report observed the 10-year anniversary of this blog. For this traffic report, I am on the cusp of achieving another significant threshold: 1,000 subscribers (just five more to go). A while back, I tried (without success) to discourage others from subscribing to this blog in hopes that it would provide responsive traffic. Since then, more than 700 new subscribers have appeared, many of them commercial blogs hawking things like photography, technology services (especially SEO), fashion, and celebrity gossip. I used to at least have one look at them, but I no longer do. The most incongruent (to those who are familiar with the themes of this blog) are the testimonial blogs in praise of (someone’s) god. If I could unsubscribe others on my end, I probably would; but alas, my basic WordPress blog does not have that feature.

So what besides the almost 1,000 subscribers has occurred here since the last report? Not a whole lot besides my regular handwringing about things still wrong in the world. There was that small matter of the U.S. presidential election, which garnered some of my attention, but that really falls within the wider context of the U.S. destroying itself in fits and starts, or even more generally, the world destroying itself in fits and starts. More than usual, I’ve reblogged and updated several old posts, usually with the suffix redux. I haven’t had any multipart blogs exploring ideas at length.

The Numbers

Total posts (not counting this one) are 474. Unique visitors are 22,017. Daily hits (views) range from 10 to 60 or so. Total hits are 95,081. Annual hits had climbed to about 12,500 in 2013 but have since declined steadily. The most-viewed post by far continues to be Scheler’s Hierarchy, with most of the traffic coming from the Philippines.

Doom Never Dies

Whereas the so-called greatest story ever told refers to Jesus for most people, I think the most important story ever told (and ignored) is how we humans drove the planet into the Sixth Extinction and in the process killed ourselves. I find more and more people simply acknowledging the truth of climate change (though not yet NTE) even as Republicans continue to deny it aggressively. Now that Republicans will control both houses of Congress and the White House (debatable whether Trump is truly a Republican), those already convinced expect not just an acceleration of weather-related calamity but accelerated stoking of the engine powering it. I leave you with this relevant quote from an article in Harper’s called “The Priest in the Trees“:

What must die is the materialist worldview in which physical reality is viewed as just stuff: “The world is not merely physical matter we can manipulate any damn way we please.” The result of that outlook is not just a spiritual death but a real, grisly, on-the-cross kind of death. “We are erecting that cross even now,” he said.

Addendum

A meaningless milestone (for me at least), but a milestone nonetheless:

1000-followers

The holiday weekend (July 4th) is one of several spots on the calendar given to unusual crowd formation as events ranging from barbecues, concerts, parades, festivals, and fireworks displays invite multitudes to assemble. The combo concert/fireworks display is perhaps the most well attended, as the fetish for watching shit blow up never flags. The Taste of Chicago is about to begin and is a notable example of severe overcrowding; the pics on the website do not show sun-baked, sweaty, overfed attendees elbowing each other for room to move or just to stand still and eat, but that’s been my experience. In honor of their 100-year anniversaryOutside Magazine also devoted a recent issue to the National Parks, which are setting attendance records. I’ve written before about the self-defeating result of drawing unmanageable crowds together. Consider this frightening image of a crowded beach in China, which is a frequent problem around our overpopulated globe:

crowded_beach_china_02

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I remember that sinking feeling when the Deepwater Horizon oil well blew out in April 2010 and gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days at an estimated rate of 62,000 barrels per day (9,900 m3/d) until it was reportedly capped (but may not have been fully contained). That feeling was more intense than the disgust I felt at discovering the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and subsequently others in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans). For reasons that make no particular sense, slo-mo ecological disasters in the oceans didn’t sicken me as much as high-speed despoliation of the Gulf. More recently, I’ve been at a loss, unable to process things, actually, at two new high-speed calamities: the contaminated tap water flowing from public waterworks in Flint, MI, and the methane leak from an underground well in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA (no links provided, search for yourself). Whereas the first two examples turned my stomach at the mere knowledge, the second two are quite literally sickening people.

These examples could be part of a daily diet of stomach-churning news if I had the nerve to gather further examples. Indeed, the doomer sites I habituate at intervals (no longer daily) gather them together for me. As with the examples above, many are industrial chemical spills and contamination; others are animal and plant populations dying en masse (e.g., bee colony collapse disorder); yet others are severe weather events (e.g., the California drought) on the rise due to the onset of climate change (which has yet to go nonlinear). Miserable examples keep piling up, yet business as usual continues while it can. Death tolls are difficult to assess, but at present, they appear to be impacting nonhuman species with greater ferocity thus far. Some characterize this as Mother Nature doing her necessary work by gradually removing the plant and animal species on which humans depend as the very top apex predator. That means eventually removing us, too. I don’t care for such a romantic anthropomorphism. Rather, I observe that we humans are doing damage to the natural world and to ourselves in perhaps the slowest slo-mo disaster, the most likely endpoint being near-term extinction.

As much, then, as the alarm has been sounding adequately with respect to high-speed disasters stemming from human greed, incompetence, and frailty, I find that even worse calamity awaiting us has yet to penetrate the popular mind. Admittedly, it’s awfully hard to get one’s head around: the extinction of the human species. Those who resign themselves to speaking the truth of inevitability are still characterized as kooks, wackos, conspiracy mongers, and worse, leaders of death cults. From my resigned side of the fence, proper characterization appears to be the very opposite: those who actively ruin nature for profit and power are the death cult leaders, while those who prophesy doom are merely run-of-the-mill Cassandras. The ranks of the latter, BTW, seem to be gaining while critical thought still exists in small, isolated oases.

A friend gave me William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail to read a couple years ago and it sat on my shelf until just recently. At only 93 pp. (with bibliographical recommendations and endnotes), it’s a slender volume but contains a good synopsis of the dynamics that doom civilizations. I’ve been piecing together the story of industrial civilization and its imminent collapse for about eight years now, so I didn’t expect Ophuls’ analysis to break new ground, which indeed it didn’t (at least for me). However, without my own investigations already behind me, I would not have been too well convinced by Ophuls’ CliffsNotes-style arguments. Armed with what I already learned, Ophuls is preaching to the choir (member).

The book breaks into two parts: biophysical limitations and cultural impediments borne out of human error. Whereas I’m inclined to award greater importance to biophysical limits (e.g., carrying capacity), particularly but not exclusively as civilizations overshoot and strip their land and resource bases, I was surprised to read this loose assertion:

… maintaining a civilization takes a continuous input of matter, energy, and morale, and the latter is actually the most important. [p. 51]

Upon reflection, it seems to be a chicken-and-egg question. Which comes first, increased and unmet demands for inputs or exhausted and/or diminished inputs due to human factors? The historical record of failed empires and civilizations offers examples attributable to both. For instance, the Incan civilization is believed to have risen and fallen on the back of climate change, whereas the fall of the Roman and British Empires stems more from imperial overreach. Reasons are never solely factor A or B, of course; a mixture of dynamic effects is easily discoverable. Still, the question is inevitable for industrial civilization now on a trajectory toward extinction no less that other (already extinct) civilizations, especially for those who believe it possible to learn from past mistakes and avoid repetition.

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Following up the idea of resource consumption discussed in this post, I stumbled across this infographic (click on graphic for full-size version):

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The infographic wasn’t published on Earth Day (April 22), but it might should have been. Also, concern with what starting date to use when naming the current geological epoch after ourselves (the Anthropocene), while perhaps interesting, is more than a little self-congratulatory — but in the darkest sense, since we wrecked everything. I have nothing further to say about the futility of naming a geological epoch after ourselves considering how it marks our self-annihilation and soon enough no one will be left to know or care.

Let me describe briefly what else the infographic shows. In the extremely tiny slice of geological time (1760–2010 CE) shown along the x-axis, we have been on a gradually rising trend of consumption (measured by human population, air pollution, energy use, large dams, and more recently, number of motor vehicles), which is mirrored by a decreasing trend in available resources (measured in tropical forest area and number of species). The author, Haisam Hussein, notes that around 1950, trends began a steep acceleration (in both directions), which have not yet reached their limits. Of course, there are limits, despite what ideologues may say.

To recharacterize in slightly more recognizable terms, let’s say that the entire human population is the equivalent of Easter Islanders back in the day when they were cutting down now-extinct Rapa Nui palms as part of their ongoing project of building monuments to themselves. The main difference is that the whole planet stands in for Easter Island. And instead of palm trees, let’s say our signature resource is a money tree, because, after all, money makes the world go around and it grows on trees. Easter Island was completely forested up to about 1200 CE but became treeless by around 1650 CE. The trend was unmistakable, and the mind boggles now (hindsight being 20/20) at what must have been going on in the minds of the islanders who cut down the last tree. Here’s the equally obvious part: the planet (the money tree) is also a bounded (finite) ecosystem, though larger than Easter Island, and we’re in the process of harvesting it as fast as we can go because, don’t ya know, there’s profit to be made — something quite different from having enough to live comfortable, meaningful lives.

So we’re not yet down to our final tree, but we’re accelerating toward that eventuality. It’s unclear, too, what number of trees constitutes a viable population for reproductive purposes. When considering the entire planet as an interlocking ecosystem, the question might be better posed as the number of species needed to maintain the lives of, say, large mammals like us. Aggregate human activity keeps whittling away at those species. Of course, the last money tree isn’t a physical tree like the Rapa Nui palm; it’s a social construct where ROI on continued mining, drilling, manufacturing, harvesting, building, paving, transportation, distribution, etc. runs its course and all profit-making activity comes to a screeching halt. The so-called shale oil miracle that promised eventual U.S. energy independence only a few moons ago has already busted (it was going to anyway as production tailed off quickly) and job losses keep piling up (tens and hundreds of thousands worldwide). Consider that a small, inconsequential brake on accelerating trends. Where things get really interesting is when that bust/halt spreads to every sector and food/energy supplies are no longer available in your neighborhood, or possibly, just about anywhere unless you grow your own food well away from population centers.

Virtually every failed bygone civilization provides evidence that we, too, will proceed doing what we’re doing heedlessly: cutting down trees until at last there are no more. Again, the mind boggles: what could possibly be going on in the minds of those holding the reins of power and who know where we’re headed (to oblivion) yet keep us pointed there steadfastly? And why don’t more of us regular folks also know our trajectory and take to task our leaders for failing to divert from our trip into the dustbin of history?

The comic below alerted me some time ago to the existence of Vaclav Smil, whose professional activity includes nothing less than inventorying the planet’s flora and fauna.

Although the comic (more infographic, really, since it’s not especially humorous) references Smil’s book The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change (2003), I picked up instead Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature (2013), which has a somewhat more provocative title. Smil observes early in the book that mankind has had a profound, some would even say geological, impact on the planet:

Human harvesting of the biosphere has transformed landscapes on vast scales, altered the radiative properties of the planet, impoverished as well as improved soils, reduced biodiversity as it exterminated many species and drove others to a marginal existence, affected water supply and nutrient cycling, released trace gases and particulates into the atmosphere, and played an important role in climate change. These harvests started with our hominin ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago, intensified during the era of Pleistocene hunters, assumed entirely new forms with the adoption of sedentary life ways, and during the past two centuries transformed into global endeavors of unprecedented scale and intensity. [p. 3]

Smil’s work is essentially a gargantuan accounting task: measuring the largest possible amounts of biological material (biomass) in both their current state and then across millennia of history in order to observe and plot trends. In doing so, Smil admits that accounts are based on far-from-perfect estimates and contain wide margins of error. Some of the difficulty owes to lack of methodological consensus among scientists involved in these endeavors as to what counts, how certain entries should be categorized, and what units of measure are best. For instance, since biomass contains considerable amounts of water (percentages vary by type of organism), inventories are often expressed in terms of fresh or live weight (phytomass and zoomass, respectively) but then converted to dry weight and converted again to biomass carbon.

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Nafeez Ahmed has published a two-part article at Motherboard entitled “The End of Endless Growth” (see part 1 and part 2). Commentary there is, as usual, pretty nasty, so I only skimmed and won’t discuss it. Ahmed’s first part says that things are coming to their useful ends after an already extended period of decline, but the second argues instead that we’re already in the midst of a phase shift as (nothing less than) civilization transforms itself, presumably into something better. Ahmed can apparently already see the end of the end (at the start of a new year, natch). In part 1, he highlights primarily the work of one economist, Mauro Bonaiuti of the University of Turin (Italy), despite Bonaiuti standing on the shoulders of numerous scientists far better equipped to read the tea leaves, diagnose, and prognosticate. Ahmed (via Bonaiuti) acknowledges that crisis is upon us:

It’s the New Year, and the global economic crisis is still going strong. But while pundits cross words over whether 2015 holds greater likelihood of a recovery or a renewed recession, new research suggests they all may be missing the bigger picture: that the economic crisis is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of industrial civilization’s relationship with nature.

“Civilization’s relationship with nature” is precisely what Ahmed misunderstands throughout the two articles. His discussion of declining EROEI and exponential increases in population, resource extraction and consumption, energy use and CO2 emissions, and species extinction are good starting points, but he connects the wrong dots. He cites Bonauiti’s conclusion that “endless growth on a finite planet is simply biophysically impossible, literally a violation of one of the most elementary laws of physics: conservation of energy, and, relatedly, entropy.” Yet he fails to understand what that means beyond the forced opportunity to reset, adapt, and reorganize according to different social models.

At no point does Ahmed mention the rather obvious scenario where many billions of people die from lack of clean water, food, and shelter when industrial civilization grinds to a halt — all this before we have time to complete our phase shift. At no point does Ahmed mention the likelihood of widespread violence sparked by desperate populations facing immediate survival pressure. At no point does Ahmed mention the even worse likelihood of multiple nuclear disasters (hundreds!) when infrastructure fails and nuclear plants start popping like firecrackers.

What does Ahmed focus on instead? He promises “cheap, distributed clean energy” (going back up the EROEI slope) and a transition away from industrial agriculture toward relocalization and agroecology. However, these are means of extending population, consumption, and despoliation further into overshoot, not plans for sustainability at a far lower population. Even more worrisome, Ahmed also cites ongoing shifts in information, finance, and ethics, all of which are sociological constructs that have been reified in the modern world. These shifts are strikingly “same, only different” except perhaps the ethics revolution. Ahmed says we’re already witnessing a new ethics arising: “a value system associated with the emerging paradigm is … supremely commensurate with what most of us recognize as ‘good’: love, justice, compassion, generosity.” I just don’t see it yet. Rather, I see continued accumulation of power and wealth among oligarchs and plutocrats, partly through the use of institutionalized force (looking increasingly like mercenaries and henchmen).

Also missing from Ahmed’s salve for our worries is discussion of ecological collapse in the form of climate change and its host of associated causes and effects. At a fundamental level, the biophysical conditions for life on earth are changing from the relative steady state of the last 200,000 years or so that humans have existed, or more broadly, the 65 million years since the last major extinction event. The current rate of change is far too rapid for evolution and culture to adapt. New ways of managing information, economics, and human social structures simply cannot keep up.

All that said, well, sure, let’s get going and do what can be done. I just don’t want to pretend that we’re anywhere close to a new dawn.

Peter Van Buren has a new book out and is flogging it at TomDispatch. He’s a good enough writer, so I have no objection to the promotional aspect of disseminating his own work. But as I read his article describing an America gone to seed, I realized that for all his writerly skill, he misses the point. As a former State Dept. administrator (charged with assisting Iraqi reconstruction) turned whistle-blower, Van Buren is clearly outside the mainstream media and somewhat outside mainstream opinion, yet he appears to be well within the dominant paradigm. His new spin on regime change takes as implicit all the teachings of economics and politics as systems ideally suited to engineering an equitable social contract where everyone benefits. But as cycles of history have shown, those systems are even more prone to manipulation by a power elite who care little about people they pretend to serve. Whether that carelessness is learned or ingrained in the kleptocracy plutocracy is open to debate.

Van Buren’s article offers a few interesting tidbits, including a couple neologisms (I’m always on the lookout for new coin):

dirt shadow = the faint but legible image left behind an uninstalled sign on the exterior of a closed storefront or building

street gravy = the dirt and grunge that collects over time on a homeless person

Neither is too picaresque. The second is obviously a (sad because it’s too hip) euphemism, since gravy suggests richness whereas the actuality is downright unpleasant. As Van Buren surveys, similar unpleasantness is currently experienced all across America in towns and niche economies that have imploded. Interestingly, his counterexample is a U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejeune located in North Carolina, that functions as a gated community with the added irony that it is supported by public funds. Van Buren also notes that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, an average active-duty service member receives a benefits and pay compensation package estimated to be worth $99,000, some 60 percent of it in noncash compensation.

If there is a cause why our regime is in disarray, however, Van Buren busies himself with standard economic and political (one might even say military-industrial) explanations, demonstrating an inability to frame the decline of empire as the beginning of an epochal shift away from plentiful energy resources, famously termed The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. (We ought to resurrect that phrase.) Other frames of reference are certainly not without their impacts, but the inability to connect all the dots to see the underlying cause is commonplace in the mainstream.

In contrast, consider this passage from Harvesting the Biosphere by Vaclav Smil:

There are two simple explanations why food production in traditional agricultural societies — despite its relatively high need for claiming new arable land — had a limited impact on natural ecosystems: very low population growth rates and very slow improvements in prevailing diets. Population growth rates averaged no more than 0.05% during the antiquity and they reached maxima of just 0.07% in medieval Eurasia — resulting in very slow expansion of premodern societies: it took Europe nearly 1,500 years to double the population it had when Rome became an empire, and Asian doubling was only a bit faster, from the time of China’s Han dynasty to the late Ming period. [pp. 118–119]

Smil goes on to provide exhaustive detail, much of it measurement (with acknowledged ranges of error), showing how modern mechanisms and energy exploitation have enabled rapid population growth. Although population has (apparently) not yet peaked, we are already sliding back down the energy gradient we climbed over the past 250 years and will soon enough face widespread food shortages (among other things) as productivity plummets due to diminishing energy inputs and accumulated environmental destruction (including climate change). Economics and politics do not possess solutions to that prospect. That’s the real dirt in the historical narrative, which remains largely uncovered (unreported) by paradigmatic thinking.

One of the arguments I never see trotted out in the debate over gun control is that guns represent an unwholesome extension of power that ought to be relinquished. This brings to mind how the Japan Shogunate restricted guns and swords in 1587 to samurais because of the recognition that arms destabilize society, granting undue power to better-armed factions. (This lesson was completely lost on the architects of the Cold War.) Even today, Japanese legal restrictions on gun ownership make it so that almost no one owns one. What Japanese society has instead might be interpreted as a level playing field, where everyone is limited to whatever harm they can do through small-scale violence and force. No doubt Japan is better equipped to enforce and accept such restriction because it’s a homogeneous society, whereas most of the rest of the world is heterogeneous and thrives on power imbalance.

If one adopts a slightly different lens, the ability to accomplish work through the focused application of energy (power) provides considerable advantages in productivity and efficiency, such as moving more earth to plant and harvest crops. Large structures can now be built with less manpower and with far greater speed than, say, medieval castles and cathedrals that took generations to complete. Mining can now be done above ground and across huge swaths of land compared to the past, though damaging overburden has grown exponentially. And commercial fishing is now characterized by quite literally vacuuming up the ocean floor without regard for bycatch or ecological degradation.

Over time, all of humanity’s collective effort at increased production and efficiency has proven to be a boon in terms of standard of living and sheer population growth. Pockets of difficulty may have slowed this trend but have not altered its basic trajectory. Now that we possess so much power to engineer and transform the world to suit our singular demands, however, we are caught in a trap: the power tools we created will be the instruments of our own destruction. It’s as if the Frankenstein monster (Mary Shelley’s warning of the peril of science run amok) became Icarus (the mythological admonition against hubris), acquiring too much power and flying too near the sun (mythologically becoming gods ourselves). But for a time, dull Frankarus did soar awfully high, and maybe gloriously, too, before being foiled.

It takes considerable restraint to forswear power-granting tools such as guns or nuclear energy. If only the Japanese (and the rest of us) had been so prescient with regard to the latter. The U.S. and Russia suffered their own nuclear catastrophes before Fukushima blew two years ago, but they were limited in comparison. Fukushima has not yet been contained and faces extremely dangerous clean-up later this month. I cannot referee the veracity of alarmist reports, but credible claims that the Pacific Ocean and West Coast of North America are slowly being fried have me spooked that we may have killed ourselves even sooner than thought. It may not even require things to go badly in the clean-up effort if we’re already the proverbial frog being boiled alive. Yet the mainstream media distracts us with frivolous reports of the early kick-off of the Xmas shopping season because, ya know, Thanksgiving comes late this year and we hardly have time to fit in our annual engorgement.