Posts Tagged ‘nature’

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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As a boy, my home included a coffee table book, title unknown, likely published circa 1960, about the origins of human life on Earth. (A more recent book of this type attracting lots of attention is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) by Yuval Harari, which I haven’t yet read.) It was heavily enough illustrated that my siblings and I consulted it mostly for the pictures, which can probably be excused since we were youngsters at the time time. What became of the book escapes me. In the intervening decades, I made no particular study of the ancient world — ancient meaning beyond the reach of human memory systems. Thus, ancient could potentially refer to anthropological history in the tens of thousands of years, evolutionary history stretching across tens of millions of years, geological history over hundreds of millions of years, or cosmological time going back a few billions. For the purpose of this blog post, let’s limit ancient to no more than fifty thousand years ago.

A few months ago, updates (over the 1960 publication) to the story of human history and civilization finally reached me (can’t account for the delay of several decades) via webcasts published on YouTube between Joe Rogan, Randall Carlson, and Graham Hancock. Rogan hosts the conversations; Carlson and Hancock are independent researchers whose investigations converge on evidence of major catastrophes that struck the ancient world during the Younger Dryas Period, erasing most but not all evidence of an antediluvian civilization. Whereas I’m a doomer, they are catastrophists. To call this subject matter fascinating is a considerable understatement. And yet, it’s neither here nor there with respect to how we conduct our day-to-day lives. Their revised history connects to religious origin stories, but such narratives have been relegated to myth and allegory for a long time already, making them more symbolic than historical.

In the tradition of Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and Darwin, all of whom went against scientific orthodoxy of their times but were ultimately vindicated, Carlson and Graham appear to be rogue scientists/investigators exploring deep history and struggling against the conventional story of the beginnings of civilization around 6,000 years ago in the Middle East and Egypt. John Anthony West is another who disputes the accepted narratives and timelines. West is also openly critical of “quackademics” who refuse to consider accumulating evidence but instead collude to protect their cherished ideological and professional positions. The vast body of evidence being pieced together is impressive, and I truly appreciate their collective efforts. I’m about 50 pp. into Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), which contains copious detail not well suited to the conversational style of a webcast. His follow-up Magicians of the Gods (2015) will have to wait. Carlson’s scholarly work is published at the website Sacred Geometry International (and elsewhere, I presume).

So I have to admit that my blog, launched in 2006 as a culture blog, turned partially into a doomer blog as that narrative gained the weight of overwhelming evidence. What Carlson and Hancock in particular present is evidence of major catastrophes that struck the ancient world and are going to repeat: a different sort of doom, so to speak. Mine is ecological, financial, cultural, and finally civilizational collapse borne out of exhaustion, hubris, frailty, and most importantly, poor stewardship. Theirs is periodic cataclysmic disaster including volcanic eruptions and explosions, great floods (following ice ages, I believe), meteor strikes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like, each capable of ending civilization all at once. Indeed, those inevitable events are scattered throughout our geological history, though at unpredictable intervals often spaced tens or hundreds of thousands of years apart. For instance, the supervolcano under Yellowstone is known to blow roughly every 600,000 years, and we’re overdue. Further, the surface of the Moon indicates bombardment from meteors; the Earth’s history of the same is hidden somewhat by continuous transformation of the landscape lacking on the Moon. The number of near misses, also known as near-Earth objects, in the last few decades is rather disconcerting. Any of these disasters could strike at any time, or we could wait another 10,000 years.

Carlson and Hancock warn that we must recognize the dangers, drop our petty international squabbles, and unite as a species to prepare for the inevitable. To do otherwise would be to court disaster. However, far from dismissing the prospect of doom I’ve been blogging about, they merely add another category of things likely to kill us off. They give the impression that we should turn our attention away from sudden climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and other perils to which we have contributed heavily and worry instead about death from above (the skies) and below (the Earth’s crust). It’s impossible to say which is the most worrisome prospect. As a fatalist, I surmise that there is little we can do to forestall any of these eventualities. Our fate is already sealed in one respect or another. That foreknowledge make life precious for me, and frankly, is another reason to put aside our petty squabbles.

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.