Eternal Return

May 9, 2013

Meanwhile, back home, the cicada molting is starting.  Once every seventeen years they climb out of the earth where they have been surviving on root juices, and begin to mate. The sound is deafening, it lasts for a couple of weeks, and the ground is littered with millions of molting husks. Beautiful nature.

Dylan called them locusts, and said they sang in sweet harmony.

Alas, certainty…!

April 24, 2013

From the SINTEF report on the debate over the human impact on climate change:


To illustrate the way that scientific, political and ethical concerns are mixed in the debate on Anthropogenic Global Warming, this report used the by now famous quote from Gro Harlem Brundtland, that “doubt has been eliminated“,and that “it is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation” as a point of departure. The goal of the report was to enter this debate and battlefield of arguments and take stock of the debate about anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. Based on the present review of this debate there are several conclusions to be drawn. The first and simplest one is that considered as an empirical statement, the assertion that doubt has been eliminated on AGW is plainly false. Although as documented the level of agreement in the scientific literature that AGW is occurring is quite extensive,the magnitude of dissent,questioning and contrarian perspectives and positions in both scientific discourse and public opinion on the question of AGW evidently contradicts such a proclamation.

One man’s poison is another man’s meat

August 27, 2012

Click for source and interactive data map

That goes for natural habitats too.  With less rain falling in the middle of the country during the current drought, there’s less polluted runoff to the Mississippi.  That means that the river’s discharge to the Gulf of Mexico is a lot cleaner than usual.

An analysis of the Gulf from Aug. 15-21 covered more than 1,200 miles of cruise track, from Texas to Louisiana. The team found no hypoxia off the Texas coast while only finding hypoxia near the Mississippi River delta on the Louisiana coast.

Hypoxia is a condition in which the ocean waters have very low levels of dissolved oxygen present, which means that living things can’t survive there.  Fish do breathe, but through their gills.

“We had to really hunt to find any hypoxia at all and Texas had none,” says Steve DiMarco, associate professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University. “The most severe hypoxia levels were found near Terrabonne Bay and Barataria Bay off the coast of southeast Louisiana.

Basically, the dissolved fertilizer from agriculture stimulates high levels of algae growth in the waters.  When they die, they sink and decay, which uses up the oxygen in the water.  Then everything dies.  As long as the amount of chemical nutrients coming into the system is in balance with the dynamics of the waterbody, the oxygen level fluctuates within bounds that local life can tolerate.  Pollution by industry, agriculture, or local sewer systems can upset that balance.

New Environmentalism?

May 30, 2012

The Pulaski Skyway spans the Hackensack Meadowlands

With accumulated time on earth, comes the knowledge that much of what goes on in society is driven by generational demographics, or what used to be called “The Generation Gap.”  It can be funny:  hippies raising broods of yuppie wannabees, conservative button-down types being railed at by their liberal children – the usual.  I groan inwardly when I see young libertarians walking around spouting slogans, thinking they’re hip and brash:  their ideas are so 18th century.  (And I do love the 18th century, you know.)

Is there a similar backlash now in the environmental movement, I wonder?  I’m thinking of three young writers, all deeply interested in the man-nature ‘interface,’ who seem to be at pains to distance themselves from what they consider a soddenly romantic or New-Age-y environmentalism; the “we must heal/save/worship the Earth” variety.

I first became aware of it reading the journal put out by The Nature Conservancy.  (I give to that group because it puts into practice my environmental golden rule – preserve habitat!)  There was an interview with Emma Marris, who has written Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Nature World.  I don’t like that post-nature part: sounds way too much like Bill McKibben, but I like what she says:

NC:  In your new book … you argue that “we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit or not.” You say this calls for a new definition of nature beyond “pristine wilderness,” which no longer exists and hasn’t for some time. How must nature be defined now?

EM:  I struggled with that definition in the book, since much of my argument is about enlarging nature to include more kinds of things and places beyond pristine wilderness, from backyard birds to city parks to farms. . . . I am not sure we need a rigorous and watertight definition. We know nature when we see it, because we respond to it. At any rate, there’s a lot more of it out there outside of designated nature reserves than inside.

Then there is the book I just read, The Meadowlands, by Arthur Sullivan, which is about his journeys through the Hackensack Meadowlands, dismissed by New York-centric comedians for years as the armpit of the nation.  Sullivan revels in the industrialized natural history of the place, marveling that so much ‘nature’ has managed to survive in it.  He has to sell books, so he plays up the eccentric characters he meets, the stories of mob burials and toxic waste – some of it completely true – as well as the natural and unnatural topography of the place, but he produced a readable guide to an area that has fascinated me as I gazed at it from my car or train window.  He too finds nature in urbis but not in the English picturesque fashion that rus in urbis used to mean.  As Pinsky notes in his review:

Sullivan’s account of the Meadowlands is anecdotal and genial, but his book, covertly ambitious, takes up serious matters. By looking observantly, without trite moralizing, at the natural world as well as at the disposable world we build, and at the great overlap between the two, this book suggests a challenging new model for how we ought to pay attention.

And today in the NYTimes, there was an interview with Andrew Blackwell, author of a travelogue of the world’s polluted industrial sores, including Chernobyl:

I love a backcountry hike as much as anybody, but venerating nature often has as much to do with what we think is pretty as with anything else. And a lot of the time it doesn’t leave much room for humans in the picture, which I think is a problem. Humanity’s not going anywhere

Great good sense, there.  Humanity is not going anywhere, so like the Israelis and the Palestinians, we’d better learn to live together, with Nature, of which we are a part, anyway.  And let’s drop this sentimental wooing of the pristine, the sublime, and the simply pretty, which amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization for doing what we want with Nature anyway.  Unless you’re Bill McKibben, and you think the game’s over and done with…

There are an awful lot of deep and unresolved contradictions in the philosophy of environmentalism as it is processed through political advocacy and the media machine these days – no surprise that!  Perhaps these new writers, who seem alive to the humor, irony, and foolishness of these contradictions, are part of a larger trend that may be able to create a more sustainable environmental philosophy.


May 27, 2012

I have been reading a lot about sustainability lately, trying to pin down what it really means.  I am doing this because I have grown tired of hearing the term bandied about thoughtlessly, used as a marketing slogan in my profession, used as a rallying cry for unthinking do-gooders in the public sphere, and because it is connected with ideas I find fascinating, i.e., the notions that we have to connect us with nature, and the notions we have of nature itself.  Two pieces I looked at are this booklet by a professor in England who’s specialty it is, and this article on ‘carrying capacity‘ by a human geographer at Berkley.

Th images at the head of this post represent the two paths we are told we can follow:  The first is that of bacteria reproducing in a petri dish, the population growing rapidly, then crashing – that’s the path we are supposedly on now; the second is the ‘closed loop’ of eco, bio, sustainable, new age, no growth economics that the prophets seek to bring us to.  The theological/ethical dimensions of the latter view are obvious simply from the array of images presented when you google ‘sustainability’ for images.

Mr. Jackson’s booklet (Prosperity without Growth) goes into great detail about the inequalities, inefficiencies and spiritual dogmas of our present cultural ecology of free enterprise capitalism and consumerism.  He tells that countries with much lower GDPs than the USA or UK have the same, or better!, life expectancies, same or better infant mortality rates, and that new measures of ‘happiness’ show no strong link between materialistic or consumer abundance and satisfaction.  Is this news?  Is this what the Sustainability Program amounts to – a plea to examine the nature of The Good Life, and to act accordingly?  Very old wine in new bottles.

For the record, I largely agree with this philosophic critique of our current social arrangements, but where I part company with the prophets is my belief that our current path IS sustainable, though not preferable (to me).  What these folks are doing is packaging an ethical, philosophical, moral, religious, spiritual and political point of view inside a pseudo-scientific theory.  The logic goes, if we do not change towards a sustainable path, we, human civilization, will crash like those one-celled creatures in the graph at top.  (The intellectual incoherence of this view is dissected in Nathan Sayre’s essay that I have linked to this post.)  Without the Damoclean sword of global meltdown hanging over us, why would anyone do anything to change?  Because society would be more just, more fair, more satisfying, less damaging to the ecological communities we cohabit with on Earth?  There’s too much money to be made to bother with that stuff!

So, what do we end up getting in the absences of a reasoned and organized attack on the status quo?  We get the same old economic system and its injustice and inequality, but we get bike-lanes (I like ’em), ‘green products’, (I hate ’em), tony new-urbanist developments (works for me), hipster eco-esthetic (I like to shop there) carbon footprinting (useless and deceptive) and so on…

The End is Near, again…

May 11, 2012
Just had to parse this one…
Game Over for the Climate 
New York Times, May 9, 2012

GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening.  That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”[Most scientists agree that the Earth has gotten warmer in the last 150 years, but there is disagreement over just how much, and why.  The IPCC says it is highly confident that ‘most’ of the observed warming is due to mankind’s use of fossil fuels.  If the observed warming is 1 or 1.5 degrees, F, that’s 0.5 or 0.75 degrees due to mankind, so what about that other half?  It’s not much, anyway.]

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.  [The game will go on, with us or without us…]

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk. [Saying that the tar sands contain more CO2 than we have produced throughout history sounds shocking, but could be said about any of the major fuel reserves, coal, oil, natural gas, that are left.  It amounts to saying that if we burn up everything on earth for fuel, we will have discharged more CO2 than in all of human history.  Similarly, there are more people alive today than the sum of all who have lived before.  It’s a sound-bite.  Hansen goes on to assume that this will happen quickly, and that the effects will be just as he predicts, although such a thing has never happened before.  He assumes the Doomsday scenario of polar ice meltdown, and ignores the possibility that if his predictions appeared at all correct, that people would stop using fossil fuels.  Right now they have little reason to, if they listen to just him.]

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.  [Hansen has been making predictions for decades.  The only one that is indubitable is that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere did rise.  Will he keep score on these?]

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground. [Glad he recognizes that he is being apocalyptic.  If we ‘reduce emissions dramatically,’ just what will be accomplished?  How much is ‘dramatic?’  Has he asked the Indians, the Chinese, and the rest of the developing world?  Most reduction scenarios that are at all technically, politically, and demographically plausible will have minimal impact, if his models are correct. ]

The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, [according to him, who made the prediction…] as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change. [Whoa!  That’s a claim.  I wonder who he includes in that we can say?  I would like to see the scientists who will sign onto that statement!]

We have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. The right amount keeps the climate conducive to human life. But add too much, as we are doing now, and temperatures will inevitably rise too high.[They will rise, but how much they will rise is the million dollar question.  His predictions depend on feedback loops that are speculative.] This is not the result of natural variability, as some argue. The earth is currently in the part of its long-term orbit cycle where temperatures would normally be cooling. But they are rising — and it’s because we are forcing them higher with fossil fuel emissions.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control. [Hmm…is the goal to have a climate system that we control?  Then adding CO2 is the way to go!  We cause it, we control it!  I agree, however, that reducing the use of ‘dirty’ fuels is a good idea for a lot of reasons.]

We need to start reducing emissions significantly, not create new ways to increase them. We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny. This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.  [Here here!  By all means, let’s tax carbon and make the cost more closely approximate the real cost, including all the externalities.  I’d love to see it!  We could do all sorts of great things with the money, including fund research on major alternative energy technologies.  At the very least, the result would be a serious drive towards efficiency and conservation.]

But instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling. [Well, here I more or less agree.]

President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course. Our leaders must speak candidly to the public — which yearns for open, honest discussion — explaining that our continued technological leadership and economic well-being demand a reasoned change of our energy course. History has shown that the American public can rise to the challenge, but leadership is essential.[Agree here too, but not with him!]

The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow.  [If it is so clear, then why is consensus presented in terms of statistics based on computer projections that are subject to great uncertainty?  The amount of science that is clear, e.g. that CO2 causes some warming, does not occupy the core of what the policy debate is about, which is basically an assessment of risk.]   This is a plan that can unify conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and business. [Dream on, prophet.]  Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. [This is flatly untrue and dishonest.  There have been many statements that global warming is real, that humans contribute to it, and that if current predictions are correct, the effects could be serious.  That’s a very different statement.]  The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.

Vieques – Bioluminescence

December 21, 2011

Took a little time to get away to Vieques, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, about 20 minutes by plane from San Juan.  For decades, much of the island was used by the US military as a proving ground for artillery, with the result that it was never developed as a tourist destination.  It remains a very quiet and undeveloped spot now that the bombing has been halted (decades of agitation achieved the goal in 2003) although some, not all! are hoping for a big uptick in development.

Those who are hoping against casinos and resorts are the ones who treasure the island as a little bit of relatively unspoiled nature.  The place reminds me of my days in Goa, many years ago, but without the people.  At least, when we were there, it was not hopping at all, although the high season starts after Christmas.  How high it gets, I don’t know.

Besides the beautiful beaches with calm water and fine sand, Vieques is known for the ‘bio-bay’, or Mosquito Bay (not for bugs, but for pirate ship that used to hide there) which has the highest concentration of bio-luminescent creatures of anyplace in the world.  These microscopic organisms produce bright light when they are disturbed – nobody knows why for sure.  If you have ever taken a cruise in warm waters at night and peered over the bow, you may have seen flashes of light from the bow wave that are caused by these critters – they are not rare, but this bay is remarkable.

At night, paddling through the water on kayaks, the bright stars above, and the water totally dark, any movement disturbs the Pyrodinium bahamense dinoflagellates, which causes quite a show.  The paddles pierce the dark surface of the bay and are surrounded by a bright glow.  If you shake your hand in the water, everywhere there is white light.  Fish darting below the surface of the water leave streaks like meteorites crashing through the atmosphere.  Pounding on the side of the kayak sends out a pressure wave causing every creature within twenty feet to glow brightly.  If you scoop up the water and let it run down your arms, it looks as if you are covered in glowing molten metal.

Swimming in the bay is prohibited!  We took an excellent tour of the area led by Abey, son of Abe, who is one of those folks happy to see development held at bay.  He even is happy the military was there for so long – it kept the bay and other areas undisturbed.  He rants about the evils of urban life a lot, but seemed to accept my comment that romantic nature lovers are all born in the city.  If you go, give them a call:  they really know the territory!

Ghost Crabs will keep you company…

And speaking of nature, here’s an old video: