Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Home in the Sea

"African female elephants dropping tusks may be an epigenetic adaptation similar to Surfers Ear."

 I am fortunate these days to find myself in a place where I can swim every day. I will head offshore about 250 yards and then paddle along, parallel to the beach for a quarter mile, before returning to where I started. Tucked inside the Mayan Reef, the shallow turquoise waters in this part of the world are usually safe from sharks and jellyfish and the waves are calmer, making swimming easier on this old body.

We are of the oceans, you and I. Floating in the sea, gazing up into a blue sky, I return to humanity’s womb. Indeed, the amniotic fluid I “breathed” for my first nine months in 1946 was about 2% salinity, about a third less than the ocean’s.

George Freeth
While we speak reverently of Madre Tierra and Terra Firma, all life depends on water; the élan vital, the universal solvent, aqua mater. Our mythology is full of these stories of great deliverance — the raising of Mount Ararat out of floodwaters to heel Noahs Ark, the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, George Freeth’s heroic rescue of 11 fishermen caught in a gale off Venice Pier in 1908. In a small fishing village in Japan, they still light candles to remember that deliverance and rebirth.

In Evolutionary Water: Wombs, Seas, Tears and their Utraquistic Relation, Shè Hawke writes that this is why the catastrophe of birth and expulsion from the ocean are a connected theme — our ancestors began in aquatic environments and, like salamanders or mosquitoes, passed from something like gill-breathing to air breathing. When animals emerged from the ocean to live on land, they needed lungs — to take oxygen into their blood and exhale the wastes of cellular metabolism. Lungs function to charge the blood so that vital oxygen and just the right trace of nitrogen can reach all other body cells.

Land-dwellers also needed a colon to retain and conserve internal body fluids by removing excess water from digestive wastes. Our marine skin needed to adapt to shield the body from stronger solar radiation, especially ultraviolet, and to better regulate heat, using hair follicles and sweat glands.
When animals left the ocean, they chose to carry water with them as internal stores since they could no longer be continuously supplied. The skin converted the body into a portable canteen. Over 70% of us is water, and the lymph system is the internal ocean we carry about with us. All our organs float in this sea of fluid, our intracellular, pericardial, blood, cerebral and spinal fluids fed by electrolytes regulated by kidneys. Our respiratory tracts — nostrils, sinuses, trachea, bronchi, and lungs — and digestive and reproductive systems are lined with another salt-watery ring of protection — mucus membranes.

Some of our kind returned to the oceans some 50 million years ago after having already evolved to mammalian creatures resembling dogs or cats. Earlier in their evolution, without water to provide buoyancy, these animals had lined their skeletal joints — including between vertebrae — with synovial tissue to pad and lubricate joints against the greater force of gravity. Once freed of the gravity of land, their pelvises reduced in size and separated as their vertebral columns extended to improve locomotion. Dolphins and whales swim with horizontal tailfins that move up and down, rather than back and forth like the vertical tailfins of fishes. Cetaceans’ backbones bend up and down like dogs or cats when they are running.

Humans share with elephants, iguanas, turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, seals, and sea otters our ability to weep salt tears. Other primates have no tears or any sort of nasal gland. Of the various salts found in solution in our bodily fluids and in oceans, by far the commonest is table salt, or sodium chloride (NaCl). On average there is a little over 6 milligrams (mg) of NaCl dissolved in each milliliter (ml) of our tears’ lacrimal fluid. Average ocean salinity is 3.5%, or nearly 6 times our tears (35 mg/ml). Most of that salt is the same as in our bodies — sodium chloride.

‘Knudsen salinities’ are expressed in units of parts per thousand. Average seawater is euhaline, in the range of 30 to 35 Knudsens. Metahaline bodies, like the Red Sea, range from 36 to 40. In some places, inland seas can go as high as 300 Knudsons. The saltier a body of water is, the less likely it is to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and the more likely it is to give it off. This is an important recovery element at the end of ice ages, when salinity peaks due to ice impoundment of fresh water from rain or snow, causing more CO2 to off-gas to the atmosphere and positively force the greenhouse effect (6.5% more CO2 at the end of ice ages from this), re-warming the world.

The degree of salinity in oceans is a driver of the world’s ocean circulation, where density changes due to both salinity changes and temperature changes at the surface of the ocean produce changes in buoyancy, which cause sinking and rising of water masses. This is what drives major ocean currents like the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) to exchange warm water from the surface and equator with cold water from the depths and the poles, stabilizing interior climates of continents by thermohaline circulation.

Last November The National Geographic ran an article revealing that female African elephants have been evolving to lose their tusks so as to better protect themselves from ivory hunters. At first, this seemed nonsensical to me because I had been led to believe that evolution is a very long and slow process. And yet, if true, it leads to stranger speculation.

Dropping tusks may be a morphological adaptation that elephants have latent in existing genes waiting only for the right epigenetic triggers to switch on. It is similar to when the ears of surfers bend inwards as protection against relentless cold from air and water, a condition called Surfer’s Ear. Darwin knew nothing of epigenetics.

If humans so screw Earths atmosphere and contaminate the planets surface that life on land is no longer a viable option for mammals, might we not consider following the example of the cetaceans and return to our ocean home like so many Jacques Cousteaus, but eventually shedding scuba for gills? That may not be an option we are leaving ourselves. The ocean is as badly damaged, if not worse, than the land and skies. We just can’t see it as well from where we are.

More than 80 percent of ocean pollution comes from land-based activities. From coral bleaching to sea level rise, entire marine ecosystems are rapidly changing.
  • Through the thermal expansion of water and ice melt, climate chaos is causing sea levels to rise, threatening coastal population centers.
  • Many pesticides, fertilizers and animal pharmaceuticals end up in rivers, coastal waters, and the ocean, resulting in oxygen depletion and toxins that kill or maim marine plants and shellfish.
  • Factories and industrial plants discharge sewage and other runoff into the oceans. This too results in oxygen depletion and toxins that kill marine plants and shellfish. In the U.S., sewage treatment plants discharge twice as much oil each year as tanker spills or drilling disasters.
  • Oil spills and nuke spills like Fukushima pollute the oceans, although air pollution is responsible for almost one-third of the toxic contaminants entering water. Microplastics dumped by cruise ships, container ship spills, or factories and garbage dumps on land or rivers will soon outweigh all the fish in the sea.
  • Invasive species such as poisonous algae, cholera, and countless plants and animals have entered harbor waters and disrupted the ecological balance.
  • The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 31.4 percent of fish stocks are either fished to capacity or overfished. As climate changes rapidly and microplastics take their toll, the capacity of fish stocks to replenish will drop dramatically, leading to fishery exhaustion, fish population extinctions, and widespread famines.
Another UN report, the Global Resources Outlook, released in Nairobi on March 15, tells the story behind the story. The real story is the increasing material weight of global civilization.

As I swim along looking at the coastline, I am seeing massive new hotels and homes of concrete and steel, the materials brought in by barge, literally weighing down the sandy beach. More arrives each day, the sand and gravel from quarries in Yucatan, the steel from China, the cement from factories in Mexico City. From where I sleep, I can hear the barges start to unload even before the first chirps of the dawn chorus.

Each year, more than 92 gigatonnes (Gt) of these materials — metals, minerals, fossil fuels and biomass (mostly food) are drawn out of the Earth and deposited in places like this — and this number is growing at the rate of 3.2% per year, or doubling roughly every 20 years.

Since 1970, extraction of fossil fuels has increased from 6 Gt to 15 Gt, minerals such as sand and gravel for concrete have gone from 9 Gt to 44 Gt, and biomass harvests from 9 Gt to 24 Gt, but accelerating now. Land use change — for agriculture and mountaintop removal — accounts for over 80% of biodiversity loss and 85% of water stress, even before the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are applied. The entire extraction economy accounts for 53% of climate change, even before the fuels are burned. What will it be at the next doubling? Without change, the report said resource demand would more than double to 190 Gt per year, greenhouse gases would rise 40% and demand for land would increase by 20%.

Jonathan Watts, writing in The Guardian, observes that for rich countries, this works out to the weight of two elephants per person per year. In poor countries, it is about the weight of two giraffes, but appearing less as second homes on the beach and more as smaller items like mobile phones. The piles of materials that went into making them are invisible to the consumer.

The UN report said it is essential to decouple economic growth from material consumption. They have to say this because many of the Sustainable Development Goals speak of “economic growth.” Goal #8 calls for “sustained and inclusive economic growth” which it proposes to accomplish by expanding access to financial credit to create more jobs. If production cannot be decoupled from consumption then the UN is chasing a paradox. It has about as good a chance of catching that as it would a pair of ducks. 

There is good news in that at least some of these problems can be addressed, as we have outlined in BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth, by redirecting sewage flows, arresting agrochemical overuse, and reversing climate change through a multitude of natural means.And yet, to date, none of these things are being done at any significant scale, and that scaling seems dangerously far off.

But I also wrote about this subject from here, this very place in México, in 2006 in The Post Petroleum Survival Guide. Back then, I was also grappling with this question, because if we were then, and are still, at the point of peak everything and poised at the edge of the Seneca Cliff. We will need to find a better way down than leaping without a parachute. This is not BREXIT, after all. The analogy I came up with then has guided my choices in life ever since.

The analogy was that of a surfer. What do they produce? What do they consume? Are they healthy? Are they happy? Can that sort of lifestyle be sustained? What would it take, extrapolated to world population scale?

I decided and wrote at the time that indeed the surfer lifestyle could be sustainable if it could find a permacultural balance with coconuts, fish and other staples. Growth, whether of material “wealth” or population, however, could not be sustained and some serious degrowth was overdue. I referenced the Odums’ classic work, “The Prosperous Way Down.” (2001)


The oceans are not merely our birth home, they sustain us now. It is possible to live within their limits and the limits of the good earth. The sooner we can learn that lesson, the better off we will be.



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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Zombie-fiIled Death Ships

"Each passenger’s carbon footprint while cruising is roughly three times what it would be on land."


In 1996, the late essayist David Foster Wallace described his excursion on a cruise liner as a “special mix of servility and condescension.” He exhaustively journaled every event, person, and feeling during a seven-night, all-inclusive voyage. In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he found it insulting that in the name of pampered luxury you are told what to eat, what will entertain you, what will relax you. No matter how many unlimited shrimp and lobster buffets, Wallace found the repetition so banal as to be infuriating.

When a ship docks for a few hours, cruise lines give passengers suggestions of what to do with their time before returning to the boat. But instead of offering sincere recommendations, cruise lines employ a certain pay-to-play model in which vendors on the island can pay to be recommended.


By registering their companies in foreign countries, cruise lines are able to dodge not only corporate income and property taxes but also labor, environmental and insurance laws. Carnival earns $3 billion yearly and pays zero income tax because they are registered in Panama. For Carnival, Panamanian minimum wage laws cost it from $1.22 to $2.36 per hour, high by industry standards. Royal Caribbean is incorporated in Liberia where the minimum wage is $4 to $6 per day. Norwegian Cruise Lines is registered in Bermuda, where there is currently no minimum wage. According to CruiseCritic.com, crew members in housekeeping or food and beverage may only get $2 a day. Tips make up 95 percent of their income.

All of that is really inconsequential compared to the real horrors of the 30-million passenger, 100-billion-dollar industry, where building an 8–figure ship can pay itself back in as little as 5 years, after which it’s all profits. Each ship has the pollution footprint of a small city, nearly unregulated and unpoliced.

Instead of paying for more expensive but less sulfuric fuel, such as liquefied natural gas, ships are installing “emission cheat” systems, called scrubbers. A scrubber allows a ship to wash cheap fuel and meet the IMO requirements, then discharge the pollutants from the cheap fuel into the ocean.

The two most popular cruise lines, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, both received a D score from environmental advocacy group Friends of Earth, which tabulated the score based on sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, and transparency.


The volume of wastes these floating cities produce is large — sewage; wastewater; hazardous wastes; solid waste; oily bilge water; ballast water; and sooty, sulfurous air pollution. Cruise ships can emit as much particulate matter as a million cars every day and the air quality on deck can be as bad as the world's most polluted cities. Researchers found that the air on the upper deck of the Oceana Rivera, downwind from the boat’s funnels, had 84,000 ultra-fine particulates per cubic centimeter, about a third the concentration measured directly above the stacks. Air quality in London’s busy Piccadilly Circus, using the same recording devices and found 38,400 ppcc. That 84,000 reading is closer to what you might find on a hot day close to the center of smog-choked Delhi or Shanghai.

Pampered passengers produce up to 7.7 pounds of consumer waste per person per day, from supersoft toilet paper to plastic water bottles. Many ships shred their plastic to save space, but some take advantage of the difficulty in monitoring ocean microplastics to discard it with treated sewage and greywater. Because cruise ships tend to concentrate their activities in specific coastal areas and visit the same ports, their cumulative impact on a locality can be significant. In US coastal waters, the Coast Guard has regulations prohibiting the discharge of oil or oily mixtures into the sea within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the nearest land, except under limited conditions. However, because most cruise lines are foreign registered and because the rule only applies to foreign ships within U.S. navigable waters, the regulations have little effect on cruise ship operations.

In 2015, the MV Zenith, owned by a Spanish subsidiary of Royal Caribbean, dropped anchor near a reef off Grand Cayman. Actually, it was more like “dragged anchor.” The anchor chain “draped across the entire reef, constantly moving back and forth.” The damage was immeasurable. In 2017, MV Noble Caledonia ran aground on an Indonesian reef, removing 1,600 square meters – about 17,200 square feet – of coral. Were it not that corals are declining worldwide due to climate change, the reef might repair itself in 100 years. Now the damage is permanent on any timescales humans can fathom. And these are only among the incidents we know about.

What cruise ships are really about is legal rape of the environment by the wealthiest countries and their one-percenters. Each passenger’s carbon footprint while cruising is roughly three times what it would be on land.

Overpaid or financially independent, the average cruise taker is not a pensioned postal worker, but a 30- to 39-year-old pulling down a high five- or low six-digit annual salary. In wealthy countries where governments tell their citizens to fear and revile other peoples and places, cruise lines offer the illusion of secure vacation travel. If you don’t want the risk or hassle of booking hotels, rental cars, tour guides and restaurants in unfamiliar destinations with a language you don’t speak and a culture you little understand, or care to, then for about the same price as an economy flight and all-inclusive resort you can get all that taken care of and have the security of familiar, unchanging culture constantly surrounding you. So what if your unchanging culture is the worst form of throwaway consumerism? So what if it is killing sea birds, whales, and dolphins? So what if you are flouting the Paris Agreement (which cruise lines finagled their own special exemption to)? So what if by purchasing your ticket you enter a tacit agreement to end homo sapiens evolutionary line this century? You only live once, right?

Tell that to your grandchildren.



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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Cheerleaders for Doom


 I just finished reading David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Then, in a climate change webinar, I was asked whether I thought focusing on predictions of doom — and Wallace-Wells is hard core in this respect — is productive or just numbing. Wallace-Wells says he had to ask himself that continuously and where he came down was that complacency poses a greater risk to our species than panic. A little panic can be a good thing, especially if you have become complacent.
William Brangham (PBS): You have actually argued that panic can be — that panic is appropriate in response to this, and that panic can be productive. How so?
David Wallace-Wells: The U.N. says that, in order to avoid catastrophic levels of warming, we need a global mobilization at the level of World War II. We know, from history, we didn’t fight that war out of hope or optimism. It was out of fear and alarm.
An opportunity we lose when we tamp down the rhetoric so as not to frighten or berate is the chance to deploy a whole new suite of tools that only by acknowledging the full scope of the threat do we even think we should be reaching for. For example, negative emissions technologies hardly seem worth investing in if the contemporary narrative has it that windmills, solar cells, and Tesla sports cars will do the job. It is only when you realize that 4 or 5 degrees of warming — our present trajectory — puts cities underwater to the depth of the Sydney Opera House or New York Grand Central Station, that you might feel inclined reach for these useful tools. Only when it is clear to you that plugging the hole in the lifeboat clearly will not be enough do you then reach for a bailing can.

In the PBS NewsHour interview, Wallace-Wells said:
Four degrees of warming, we would have, the U.N. suggests, as many as a billion climate refugees. That’s as many people as live in North and South America combined. We would have $600 trillion of climate damages. That’s double all the wealth that exists in the world today.
Less obvious, but no less important, is the opportunity a dilemma offers — to shift the operating system of civilization from one that exploits minorities, widens divisions, and propagates perennial insecurity (food, water, medicine, peace) to one that is inclusive, unifying and regenerative (of food, water, medicine, and peace).

 
I was thinking this week about those Artificial Intelligence programmers who were teaching a machine to correctly predict the price of a bicycle just by looking at it. They noticed that as the machine self-developed its algorithms, it would go first to the back wheel and study that. It took the programmers a while to figure out why. It was because the AI was looking for training wheels, an immediate tell for a low price. I wondered, suppose we programmed AI home devices to tell us whether we were making progress in combating climate change. What would they look for? What is the quickest tell? It wouldn’t be our light bulbs or our choice in cars. It wouldn’t be a super-efficient refrigerator or even what was in it. Perhaps the AI device need only examine the sine wave of the AC wall current that provides its own power.

Anyway, that is what came to mind when the webinar I was part of went dark because the power to my thatch palapa in this remote Mexican village failed, as it is prone to most days, taking all cell and internet service with it. Maybe another tell would be whether your walls are made of bamboo, mud, and straw.

Most of us have so far to go, a little panic could help. Wallace-Wells’ book began as a July 2017 article in New York Magazine titled “The Uninhabitable Earth — Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.” Editors worried the doomerism would sink that issue. No need to worry. It went viral. The issue had to reprint.

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Wallace-Wells said:
“For every half a degree of warming we are expected to see between 10% and 20% increase in conflict, so if we get to where we are going, by the end of the century we could have twice as much war as we have today, and that conflict happens even at the individual level, so we’ll see rises in murder rates and rape, domestic assault. It spikes the rate at which people are admitted to mental hospitals. Absolutely every aspect of life on this Earth is scheduled to be transformed by climate changes, and that really is what my book is about, not just what the science tells is going to happen, but how the way that we will live will be changed by these forces.”
Consider that the popular narrative would have it that humans have been altering the chemistry of the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial revolution (if not the agricultural one). Actually, about 85% of greenhouse pollution has only been around since World War II. Wallace-Wells observes that more than half has only been aloft since Seinfeld premiered three decades ago. A third has only been there since 2010. We are in a curve of acceleration, accumulating greenhouse gases faster today than in any other period before.
I think we had long thought that climate change was happening very slowly, that it was unfolding, at fastest, at about a decade timescale, more usually like centuries, and we didn’t have to worry about it in our own lives, maybe even our children’s lives, but it was something to worry about for our grandchildren.
More than half of all the emissions that we have put into the atmosphere in the entire history of humanity, we have done in the last 30 years. And that means that we’re doing this damage in real time and in the space of a generation. So the speed is really overwhelming.
There is more carbon in the atmosphere now than there has been for 15 million years. Humans have never lived with this much greenhouse cover before. We might not have been able to evolve if we had. When you wrap yourself up in a down quilt in the middle of summer, you will warm very quickly. As we are. At what point do you begin to wonder what it might be like if you could never throw the quilt off?

Wallace-Wells is an eloquent writer, reminiscent of Jonathan Schell, whose The Fate of the Earth woke many to the peril of our dark deal with the nuclear weapons Devil. Fate, driven by the poetic writing of Schell, forced even the most reluctant reader to confront the unthinkable: “the destruction of humanity and possibly most life on Earth". 


In an unpublished paper, “The Fate of Extinction Arguments” (1983), Brian Martin, a mathematics professor at the Australian National University, writes:
When nuclear weapons are exploded, the high temperatures cause nitrogen in the air to react with oxygen, producing oxides of nitrogen. In explosions larger than about one megatonne, the fireball of the explosion rises the 10 or 15 kilometers necessary to deposit much of these oxides of nitrogen in the stratosphere, where the oxides of nitrogen destroy ozone. Since stratospheric ozone absorbs ultraviolet light from the sun, the net consequence of large nuclear explosions is an increase in ultraviolet light at the earth’s surface.
Shell described the effect in more poignant prose…
“the blinding of insects, birds, and beasts all over the world; the extinction of many ocean species, among them some at the base of the food chain; the temporary or permanent alteration of the climate of the globe, with the outside chance of ‘dramatic’ and ‘major’ alterations in the structure of the atmosphere; the pollution of the whole ecosphere with oxides of nitrogen; the incapacitation in ten minutes of unprotected people who go out into the sunlight; the blinding of people who go out into the sunlight; a significant decrease in photosynthesis in plants around the world; the scalding and killing of many crops; the increase in rates of cancer and mutation around the world, but especially in the targeted zones, and the attendant risk of global epidemics; the possible poisoning of all vertebrates by sharply increased levels of Vitamin D in their skin as a result of increased ultraviolet light” (p. 93).
If this all sounds a bit like climate change, it should, because that is one of the great capabilities of a nuclear exchange — a long, radioactive, nuclear winter followed by set design from The Road, Waterworld, or Mad Max.

 
Martin takes Schell to task for precisely the criticism being leveled at climate doomers and peak oil catastrophists.
The belief in nuclear extinction seems to have inhibited peace movement thinking about the development of long term strategies … for transforming the institutional roots of war. A less-exaggerated assessment of the effects of nuclear war does not necessarily mean less concern. Instead, hopefully, it can lead to more penetrating analyses and more successful strategies for ending the nuclear threat.
I think exaggerated is in the eye of the beholder. Wallace-Wells is the first to say he hopes the lower bound of the estimates scientists are giving us is what turns out to be right. The point is, most people are not discussing the upper bound at all. It is a discussion we need to be having. Most predictions end in 2100, but that could be just when the party really gets going. If we stay on track for 3.9 to 4.3 degrees Celsius this century, we will cross thresholds that trigger tipping elements (permafrost, Arctic Sea albedo, African desertification) that can double or triple the damage in the next century and perhaps even in this one. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, possibly the most conservative source, told us just last year that by as soon as 2030 some of these cascading effects could be irreversible.

Contrary to what the voices for moderation counsel, confronting an existential threat rather than watering down the rhetoric can lead to more penetrating analyses and more successful strategies. Softening the risk leads to underestimating the enemy.

I urge everyone to read The Uninhabitable Earth and then see if they don’t agree. This is a “hair on fire” moment for the sake of everything we hold dear.


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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Seizing Defeat

"
In our moment of ultimate defeat as a species, a spark has been kindled.
"

Hans-Peter Schmidt and a Cuban regenerative farmer recovering brownfields with agroforestry, fungi, and biochar, Alamar 2018. Photo by Albert Bates
Earlier this month in Dancing with Ulysses, I looked at the moments of realization being experienced by Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, and many people around the world, and how that had progressed, in only a short time, from shocked climate scientists, to weary diplomats in Paris, to the thin leading edge of a mass awakening of a billion minds to a shared apocalyptic vision.

The question I posed was, “So what comes next?”

More than 30 years ago I first confronted that problem while compiling Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What You Can Do. Chapter 3 of that book, called “Runaway,” begins with the line, “The speed of the changes now underway holds a risk of greater magnitude than most people imagine possible.” It then described the Venus Effect, wherein humans traverse some unseen threshold and suddenly find themselves in Hothouse Earth, beyond the point of course corrections. In my new book, BURN Using Fire to Cool the Earth, I tried to insert this illustration from Will Steffen and co-authors, but the publisher couldn’t find space and it got cut. It shows how we move from the Holocene equilibrium that allowed simple mammals to evolve into us, and dolphins and wolves, out of that zone and into a new, hotter equilibrium in which higher life-forms like dolphins, wolves, and humans are untenable.
Stability landscape showing the pathway of the Earth System out of the  Holocene and thus, out of the glacial–interglacial limit cycle to its  present position in the hotter Anthropocene. The fork in the road is shown here as the two divergent pathways of the Earth System in the  future (broken arrows). Currently, the Earth System is on a Hothouse Earth pathway driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases and  biosphere degradation toward a planetary threshold at ∼2 °C beyond which the system follows an essentially irreversible pathway  driven by intrinsic biogeophysical feedbacks. The other pathway leads to  Stabilized Earth, a pathway of Earth System stewardship guided by  human-created feedbacks to a quasistable, human-maintained basin of  attraction. “Stability” (vertical axis) is defined here as the inverse  of the potential energy of the system. Systems in a highly stable state  (deep valley) have low potential energy, and considerable energy is  required to move them out of this stable state. Systems in an unstable  state (top of a hill) have high potential energy, and they require only a  little additional energy to push them off the hill and down toward a  valley of lower potential energy.
Having that awakening sits you upright. The threshold is no longer unseen, it is right in front of you and it seems impossible to arrest the momentum that will carry you across. So you begin to scratch around for some heroic gymnastic move to escape that fate, assuming, as one must, that it is not too late already (or even assuming that and rejoicing in a grand futile gesture). Steffen says:
Most of the feedbacks can show both continuous responses and tipping point behavior in which the feedback process becomes self-perpetuating after a critical threshold is crossed.… A few of the changes associated with the feedbacks are reversible on short timeframes of 50–100 years (e.g., change in Arctic sea ice extent with a warming or cooling of the climate; Antarctic sea ice may be less reversible because of heat accumulation in the Southern Ocean), but most changes are largely irreversible on timeframes that matter to contemporary societies (e.g., loss of permafrost carbon). A few of the feedbacks do not have apparent thresholds (e.g., change in the land and ocean physiological carbon sinks, such as increasing carbon uptake due to the CO2 fertilization effect or decreasing uptake due to a decrease in rainfall). For some of the tipping elements, crossing the tipping point could trigger an abrupt, nonlinear response (e.g., conversion of large areas of the Amazon rainforest to a savanna or seasonally dry forest), while for others, crossing the tipping point would lead to a more gradual but self-perpetuating response (large-scale loss of permafrost). There could also be considerable lags after the crossing of a threshold, particularly for those tipping elements that involve the melting of large masses of ice.
— Steffen, Will, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes et al. "Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 33 (2018): 8252-8259.
Between 2006 and 2007, while I was researching The Biochar Solution, I paid a call on Frank Michael and asked if he would mind running some maths for me. Frank was a fellow board member at the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (gvix.org) and held a Master’s degree in physics. Before dropping out to join our Tennessee ecovillage, he had worked on NASA’s space shuttle program. I asked Frank how many trees it would take to reverse climate change.

Most people in aerospace tend to think, after the fashion of Bill Gates or Elon Musk, that we can just tech our way out of any problem. The techocornucopian wizard crowd tends to be fans of geoengineering, imagining we will spread a layer of sunlight-reflective particulates in the stratosphere or across Greenland, or fertilize the oceans to grow massive plankton blooms. Serious studies of these schemes generally place them into two categories: impractical and expensive. To me, and also to Frank, they are absurdly reckless and dangerous. Harebrained would be a parsimonious adjective. The potential for unintended consequences is suicidally high.

Knowing at how terra preta in combination with trees had altered the climate once before, following the Columbian Genocide, I knew there was a simpler path. We can rebuild Net Photosynthetic Productivity with trees and grasses. So I asked Frank, how many trees? And also, how much land?

After much study, Frank and I co-authored a 2017 paper, Optimized Potentials for Soil Sequestration of Atmospheric Carbon, showing that a reversal of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is feasible using a socially responsible, economically productive and ecologically restorative agroforestry system we called "Climate Ecoforestry." This system, if carried to the scale of 300 megahectares (about 1.2 million square miles, or tree-planting an area roughly the size of four Frances or five Spains) every year for the next 25 years, we could achieve the cumulative storage of 667 PgC (gigatons of carbon) required to bring atmospheric CO2 back to pre-industrial 250 ppm (parts per million). Were nations to collectively reduce fossil fuel emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, the reduction to 250 ppm could be achieved by year 37. In all cases, carbon would be stored in the world's soils and living biomass and could provide many additional benefits beyond sequestration.

One key point in the calculation was that we had to take into account the oceans' CO2 outgassing feedback because that is where the majority of the industrial legacy has been absorbed and as the air gets cleaner, the oceans are going to give some of that back. In order to remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere, and keep it out, you need to remove about 3.7 tons of carbon from the ocean at the same time. Photosynthesis can do all that, as long as you continuously harvest and set that carbon aside. Otherwise, it just goes back into the cycle. Frank developed a plan he called step-harvest that works equally well for forests and grasslands. Each year the land under management is low-grade harvested or manured through rotational grazing (using a virtuous cycle for standing timber and pastureland) and after extraction of foods, fuels, fibers, and other useful commodities, carbonaceous wastes are pyrolyzed, rendering them as omni-useful biochar that takes a timeout from the atmospheric/oceanic carbon cycle for anywhere from one thousand to 100 million years.

Is there enough land for all that conversion to field and forest? Frank and I spent a lot of time researching that point. Four Frances or five Spains. Per year? Well, it turns out, we do have that much, sitting at the margins, wrecked by bad land use practices, being slowly desertified by climate change, or otherwise neglected and abandoned. Human agriculture as it was practiced from the time of Sumer was extractive and exploitative, using irrigation and the plow. Cut down the trees and then mine the soils until nothing fertile remains, move on, rinse, repeat. Add in the Haber Bosch process and chemical herbicides and pesticides and you can grow something resembling food in sterile soil for a few extra years the same way you can in a flask in a laboratory, but it will have about the same flavor and nutrient density. I would not feed that to my kid, would you?

H-P. Schmidt, Ithaka Institute
Scientists have estimated that the amount of underused land immediately available for ecological restoration is at least 1.5 Gha (1.5 billion hectares or 30 Spains) worldwide [Smith et al. 2012]. That gives a 5-year start on climate ecoforestry at full scale and gets you to the step-harvest stage, although naturally, the ramp-up would proceed gradually. We are hopeful that once the causes and effects of climate change, and the eco-agroforestry benefits and increased soil productivity, become better known, large numbers of people will mobilize and allow parts of their landholdings to convert, and over a few decades that could reach the required 4.8 Gha needed, by our estimate, to restore pre-industrial equilibrium.

But time marches on and this week my Swiss research colleague, Hans-Peter Schmidt, provided a spectacular webinar for the International Biochar Initiative that reviewed a number of his recent publications and some still in progress. He was able to reduce the land required to be used for climate regeneration by a third to a half. The significance was underscored in a meeting I attended a day later by the advisory and supervisory boards of the Ecosystem Restoration Camp movement. ERC envisions 1 million people engaged in ecosystem regeneration camps within a decade. The first is already running in Spain and another 70 around the world are anticipated to launch. The IBI also has a big number goal — one billion tons of biochar produced per year within 50 years. The two numbers go very well together. And yet, they are not nearly enough. We will all need to raise ambition.

Li, Qi, et al. "Toward the Application of High Frequency Electromagnetic Wave Absorption by Carbon Nanostructures." Advanced Science (2019): 1801057.
We should challenge some commonly-held ideas about biofuels, bioenergy and energy cropping, particularly that energy crops pose an inherent threat to ecosystems. Certain energy crops (like oil palm for biodiesel or eucalyptus for fuel pellets) are evil and kill Orangutans. But what about using energy crops to strategically enhance ecosystem functions and build regional bioeconomies? What about cascading functions so that the same energy crop makes leaf protein extracts, animal feed, fish feed, furniture, and musical instruments before it is carbonized for electricity and biochar?

Choosing appropriate practices and policies requires an understanding of how soils, climate, farm types, infrastructure, markets, and social organization can stimulate a regenerative, circular economy. In this moment of crisis, we are blessed with emerging technologies, cognitive sciences and holistic management practices that open previously undisturbed system dynamics to our thoughtful, meticulous, deliberate consideration.

There is a lot of banter about climate finance and most of that is just referring to tax schemes and government pay-outs, which is a questionable and inefficient way to go about it. So is the notion of trying to assign a monetary value to ecosystem services. Sian Sullivan, in The Environmentality of ‘Earth Incorporated, argued that the “intrinsic fallacy at the heart” of ecosystem services market initiatives is that they attempt to incentivize environmentally ethical behavior.  She maintains that the market does not produce “virtuous behavior” and that it is essentially naïve to take the view that if only we design them correctly we can halt or reverse ecosystem degradation. Another danger of these market initiatives is that they promote the “valuing of nature as money,” and do not acknowledge “nature’s immanence or sentience,” or the reality that humans are merely one of many “companions” in nature’s community, which is a key “instruction” known and honored by sustainable human societies for hundreds of millennia before we somehow mislaid that instruction manual.

H-P. Schmidt, Ithaka Institute
John Fullerton of the Capital Institute asks, “Is it an either-or proposition? Are there ways that we can design these markets to enable the “virtuous behavior” we seek to encourage in market participants?

Hans-Peter Schmidt, who doesn’t like to use terms like impact investing, has a way that could work. His idea is to repair the carbon trading system’s corruption by leasing the service of carbon removal on an annual basis, subject to strict verification. Under the UNCDD’s No Net Degradation standard, ratified into international law a few years ago, lands that are steadily degrading would need to purchase more of these sorts of carbon service leases while those that are steady being regenerated as carbon stores, such as those under care of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, would earn a steady revenue from the leases, one that presumedly appreciates every year. Investors are happy, purchases are verifiable, and more camps can be built.

When Frank and I stepped back from the Net Photosynthetic Productivity question — those physics are settled — and examined the social side of the equation, we came full circle to bioregionalism and the hyperlocal biomaterials economy, Transition Towns, and the Global Ecovillage Network. They sum the 100 drawdown technologies with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Two plus Two equals Five.

This strategy does not absolve us of the need to reduce the ecological footprint of human civilization, something we will be doing anyway because of Peak Everything. Holding to the 2 degree goal requires us to embark immediately upon the IPCC’s 7-percent glide path, halving emissions from all sources every decade. It will involve a vast, worldwide change to fossil fuel-free production that prizes handcrafted wooden buildings and objects, durable and simple design, ease of repair and material conservation. This is not like upgrading your computer to the next version of your present operating system. It is more like switching to a completely new operating system. It will take some time to learn.

In our moment of ultimate defeat as a species, a spark has been kindled. All we need do now is lean in and fan that flame.



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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Non-stick Pans and Sticky Memes

"We have, through accident or design, structured the human ecology into a zero sum game, where a few in lucky positions can succeed by beggaring their many neighbors."



On January 29, 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water Assistant Administrator David Ross released the following statement:
“Despite what is being reported, EPA has not finalized or publicly issued its PFAS management plan, and any information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature. The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing interagency review.”
David Ross was an industry shill suing EPA and state agencies for 14 years before moving into state government in Wyoming and Wisconsin where his main achievements were to roll back state powers to protect water from fracking wells, claiming federal pre-emption, while at the same time suing EPA to prevent enforcement of clean water laws. So, naturally, he was recruited by President Trump and EPA director Scott Pruitt and put in charge of water protection for the whole country.

Since his arrival, EPA has been dithering on whether to protect drinking water from unregulated industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Meanwhile, government scientists have found that the compounds are more widespread in drinking water than thought.

PFAS chemicals are widely used to make nonstick and water-proof products, including foams used to fight fires. Two of the most common forms — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — are no longer made in the United States, but in some cases have been replaced by related chemicals and there are plenty of the older pots, pans and spatulas still in circulation. Being plastic, once in the environment they don’t go away. While many communities have been pushing officials to test water supplies in order to document the extent of any contamination, EPA now has a fox watching over the henhouse.

In 2018, a study by career scientists at EPA and the United States Geological Survey described surveys of PFAS contamination in source and treated water from 25 drinking water treatment plants across the United States. When the concentrations in the treated drinking water are compared to the existing EPA water health “advisory” threshold of 70 ng/L for each chemical or their sum, only one facility exceeded the threshold, but all 50 drinking water samples tested positive.

The Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. thinks that 70 ng/L standard is too loose for health protection and estimates that up to 110 million people are served by PFAS-contaminated water supplies, the effect of which is cumulative. According to a report appearing in Science:
The stakes surrounding studies of PFAS prevalence, concentrations, and human health impacts are immense. Stricter standards could force U.S. drinking water suppliers to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to remove the chemicals. And they could require those who used the chemicals — including industrial facilities, firefighters, and the U.S. military — to pay for cleanups and potentially even damages for people who can show their health was harmed by the substances.
Nonstick pans are a wonderful invention, saving cooking oil, preserving essential flavors in ingredients, and easing the chores of dishwashers. It is small wonder that nonstick pans are now 90 percent of the aluminum pan market. But wait a moment. Think about this. The reason that foods don’t stick to nonstick is fluoropolymers. Sure they are convenient, but at the end of the day there is no free lunch. At 500 degrees F (260 degrees C) fluoropolymers split into smaller plastic fragments. The coating begins to break down, and toxic particles and gases, some of them carcinogenic, are released. It is sometimes possible to see when this has happened because the surface degrades, losing its characteristic smoothness and making it more difficult to clean. But even before that happens, the polymers can break down at the molecular level, and you wouldn’t necessarily see the damage.

At slightly higher temperatures — 660 degrees F and above — coatings give off invisible fumes strong enough to cause polymer-fume fever, a flu-like condition indicated by chills, headache, and fever. The best known non-stick plastic is Teflon, found in heat-resistant, low-friction coatings, such as nonstick surfaces for frying pans, plumber’s tape, and water slides. It was discovered during World War II as a secret part of the Manhattan Project’s process to refine uranium for the first atomic bomb. At 680 degrees F (360°C), Teflon releases at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens.

The popular magazine Good Housekeeping, after commissioning its own study, made these recommendations:
Any food that cooks quickly on low or medium heat and coats most of the pan’s surface (which brings down the pan’s temperature) is unlikely to cause problems; that includes foods such as scrambled eggs, pancakes, or warmed-up leftovers. And many other kinds of cooking are safe as well: In [our] tests, the only food prep that yielded a nonstick pan temperature exceeding 600 degrees F in less than ten minutes was steak in a lightweight pan. But to be cautious, keep these tips in mind:
Never preheat an empty pan. Each of the three empty nonstick pans we heated on high reached temperatures above 500 degrees F in less than five minutes — and the cheapest, most lightweight pan got there in under two minutes. Even pans with oil in them can be problematic; our cheapest pan zoomed to more than 500 degrees F in two and a half minutes.
Don’t cook on high heat. Most nonstick manufacturers, including DuPont, now advise consumers not to go above medium. To play it safe, set your knob to medium or low and don’t place your nonstick cookware over so-called power burners (anything above 12,000 BTUs on a gas stove or 2,400 watts on an electric range); those burners, seen more often in recent years, are intended for tasks such as boiling a large pot of water quickly.
Ventilate your kitchen. When cooking, turn on the exhaust fan to help clear away any fumes.
Don’t broil or sear meats. Those techniques require temperatures above what nonstick can usually handle.
Choose a heavier nonstick pan. Lightweight pans generally heat up fastest, so invest in heavier-weight cookware — it’s worth the extra money.
Avoid chipping or damaging the pan. To prevent scratching, use wooden spoons to stir food, avoid steel wool, and don’t stack these pans. (If you do, put a paper towel liner between them.) How long can you expect your nonstick cookware to last? DuPont’s estimate, based on moderate usage, is three to five years. Some experts advise replacing your nonstick cookware every couple of years. What should you do if the pan does become damaged? A clear answer: Throw it out.
Another danger of nonstick pans comes from the chemical used to manufacture the fluoropolymers, PFOA, which is associated with tumors and developmental problems. After paying $343 million to settle a lawsuit in 2004, DuPont agreed to phase out PFOA, and did by 2015, but many older pans may still have the coating. PFOA is still on the market, however, in microwave-popcorn bags, fast-food packaging, shampoo, carpeting, and clothing. Studies show that most of us have PFOA in our bloodstreams, and babies show trace amounts at birth. Those yoga pants you love may be killing you.

We would like to think that somewhere in government there is a federal agency watching out for our health and protecting us from products like these, but at the moment, that agency seems to have been acquired by hostile takeover, and is now bent upon protecting industry profits, heedless of the public health costs down the road, or the health of all the many non-human creatures now absorbing PFOA from the environment.

We have, through accident or design, structured the human ecology into a zero sum game, where a few in lucky positions can succeed by beggaring their many neighbors. This game has no good ending, as we have learned by playing it over and over for millennia now. We can, by better design, structure human ecology into a win-win-win game, where not only ourselves and our neighbors benefit with each roll of the dice, but so too does the previously ignored architecture of Earth’s biology. We can redesign our losing economic system to benefit all parts, the way Mother Nature does. After all, we invented this thing we call economics (although Hazel Henderson says it’s really just thinly-guised politics masquerading as an academic discipline). We can reinvent civilization, bringing new and better minds to the task. We can replace Pharaonic memes with a distributed ledgers, assigning value grounded in ecological restoration and sustainable development achievements.

A regenerative culture is wise enough to leave in place to later generations a natural world that is more resilient, more capable of meeting the cascading demands of its uncertain future, and better able to repair damage recklessly done. First, let us get rid ourselves of the idiots who shill for polluters, and their Pharoahs, and then let us set about the real work at hand. We can do without the non-stick cancer-causers. This is a sticky meme.

___

Portions of this essay were drawn from the forthcoming book, Transforming Plastic: From Pollution to Evolution. 



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