Sunday, January 20, 2019

What can you do to prepare when you can’t?

"A split vortex sending waves of cold into North America, Europe and Russia is what a warmer ocean does."

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
“And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.” —
Revelation 16:10
Suppose for a moment that you lived in, say, Syria in 2001, and through some special gift of clairvoyance, you knew what lay ahead in the coming decades. 

Most of those around you seem utterly clueless. Your country has been ruled by Hafez al-Assad, who declared himself President following a bloodless coup d’etat in 1971. Over most of your life, Assad had led what was called the Corrective Movement. Assad’s program was economic socialism, strengthening the private sector’s role in the economy, drawing a sharp line between church and state, and encouraging multiculturalism. While
 Hafez al-Assad
Assad was minority Alawite, he had reached out to bring ethnic Sunnis into senior positions in his government, the military, and the Ba’ath party. He attended Sunni Mosque to show his ecumenical spirit. By 2000, the gradual progress of Syrian economic and social development was plain to see. And now, after the old man’s death in November, his son Bashar al-Assad is popularly elected President. Bashar’s wife Asma is Sunni Muslim, born and educated in Great Britain. This is a progressive, up-and-coming country. 

You would have to be extraordinarily gifted to see what your world will look like 20 years later. Perhaps you are. You may, for instance, grasp the significance the attack of 911 holds for your nation because within the Sunni branch of Islam, Saudi Arabia is strenuously ultraconservative Wahhabi. They are so fanatical they might even imagine being able to attack the Great Satan and get away with it.
Asma and Bashar
Or you might know that having a foreign policy calling for the dissolution of Israel and the return of Palestine might be bad for your own relations with the Great Satan. It will not escape your notice when the Ba’ath party is banned in neighboring Iraq in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Alawites, such as the Assad family, are a separate ethnoreligious group from Sunni Muslim. In Syria, they are mostly a coastal population, about 11% at the inception of the Corrective Movement and about 17% today. The Qur’an is only one of their holy books and texts, and their interpretation has very little in common with the Sunni interpretation and goes much farther back. Genetic studies trace the Alawites to the Arameans, Canaanites, Hittites, and Mardaites. They were massacred by the Crusaders but later became allies when they realized the Crusaders were not a rival Islamic faction and shared many Alawite beliefs and practices. Alawites drink wine in communion (Ali’s transubstantiated essence) and allow alcohol socially, in moderation. They believe in a divine triad, comprising three aspects of the one God. To Alawites, these aspects, or emanations, appear cyclically in human form throughout history. Alawites also believe in reincarnation.

These beliefs and practices, along with separation of church and state, made the Assad regime one of the most Western-oriented in the Middle East but raised animosity among other branches of Islam. Bashar’s succession of power from his father and push towards free market trade brought about more income inequality, high youth unemployment, and also coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in the Middle East, the driest 15-year period of the last 900 years, and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. An influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War and occupied territories in Israel didn’t help, either.

As part of the wider wave of the Arab Spring protests, discontent with Bashar Assad escalated to armed conflict in 2011. Many long-simmering scores vied to get settled. Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) smelled opportunity and perhaps a shot at a Caliphate. A loose alliance among opposition rebel groups, including the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army, White Helmets and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, came together ostensibly to root out ISIL and that worried Turkey, who was not all that keen on arming the Kurds. Kurdish separatism extended well across the Turkish border.

Struck on three sides and losing ground, Ba’athist Syria and the Syrian Armed Forces, back peddling, sought help from Iran and Russia. Russia, after initial hesitance, decided Syria would be a good laboratory to try out some of its newest battlefield tech in terrain somewhat less challenging than Afghanistan. In short order, it managed to eradicate most of the opposition forces who did not have US cover and, by staying in contact with forward US command could avoid accidental overkill while surgically removing ISIL, which may or may not have been a US objective. By 2016, Syrian Armed Forces began to retake the country formerly held by jihadists.

But then President Trump made the mistake of sending ground troops and, following the downing of a Russian Su-25 warplane by a US-made SAM, Russia may have rescinded its promise to keep US soldiers and airmen safe. For the US, the war has now reverted to drones and airstrikes, while Russia continues to lend air support and training to the Syrian Armed Forces. According to the Washington Post on January 14, 2019:
Government forces backed by Russia and Iran are pummeling the few remaining rebel-held areas. Turkey has reinforced troops on its border to battle both Kurdish fighters and remaining jihadists, who are trying to defend the shrinking territory they hold.
Both Assad and the Syrian Kurds plan to resume negotiations over autonomy arrangements for Kurdish-majority areas, which displeases the US, who wants Assad out and an alliance with the Kurds, and NATO-ally Turkey, who wants the Kurds out and an alliance with Assad. Just to keep it interesting, since the conflict began Israel has frequently attacked targets there — “thousands” of them, according to IDF General Gadi Eisenkot. Were Saudi Arabia not busy in Yemen they would probably be there too. It is everyone’s free fire zone. US airstrikes alone increased 50% in 2018 and civilian casualties by 215%. Over the past 8 years, hundreds of thousands of Syrian noncombatants have been bombed, starved, or assassinated for their beliefs or ethnicity.

Meanwhile, the US elected an insane, kleptocratic gang to the White House and Senate, is exploding its national debt, and for the first time since WWI, has seen its life expectancy decline for the third year in a row. More USAnians will die in 2019 from opioids than died from the entire Vietnam war. This is what the terminal phase of empire looks like, and it would not be untoward for the US to defund its puppets and proxies and start pulling back from the 70 countries its 800 military bases occupy, while it still can. Alternatively, it could stand back and nuke the planet from space.

So you are a young Syrian in 2001. Do you see all this coming? Probably not. But suppose you did. What would you do?

The smart move could be to get out of Dodge. Take your whole family. Quick as you can, like the cleverest Jews and Gypsies in Germany in the 1930s, you should scrape up enough to leave. Don’t wait around longer than you have to.

Now consider what we all can see happening around us in 20 years. We don’t need much imagination, because the best scientists in the world have already told us what will happen with a fine degree of precision.

We are now at 1 degree Celsius above 1900. The Greenland ice sheet is shrinking. Antarctica is calving large sheets of ice into the Southern Ocean. It is not cooling the ocean as much as the ocean is heating from a futile attempt to keep the atmosphere in equilibrium. Sea level rise is accelerating, more from the thermal expansion of water than from added meltwater. On April 17, 2016 residents of Waller County Texas were walloped by 16.8 inches of rain before noon. That is what a warmer ocean does. Hurricane Harvey dropped 51 inches on the Houston region in 3 days in August 2017.
People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

To see a headline like Polar Vortex Splits In Three (January 16, 2019) might have been shocking once but is now accepted. A split vortex sending waves of cold into North America, Europe and Russia is what a warmer ocean does.

According to the National Research Council, each degree C of global temperature increase can be expected to produce:
  • 5-10% changes in precipitation across many regions
  • 3-10% increases in the amount of rain falling during the heaviest precipitation events
  • 5-10% changes in streamflow across many river basins
  • 15% decreases in the annually averaged extent of sea ice across the Arctic Ocean, with 25% decreases in the yearly minimum extent in September
  • 5-15% reductions in the yields of crops as currently grown
  • 200-400% increases in the area burned by wildfire in parts of the western United States
But that is one degree. We are past that now. On current trendline, we will be somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees warmer by the end of the century. That assumes the trend holds, which is by no means certain because many countries are still building more coal electric plants, and the Saudis have a lot more oil.

At two degrees, the NRC says, millions of more people living on coasts will be flooded out. Corals reefs will be gone and toxic plankton blooms will spread, ending much of the commercial seafood industry. Nine out of 10 summer seasons will be as hot as the hottest summer between 1980 and 2000. Crop production will decline drastically. Water shortages will be endemic as stream flows are reduced by 20 to 30%. Nuclear plants will be unable to cool themselves from rivers or coastal water and will close.

Half a degree over 2? More severe winter freezes. More heat waves, more crop losses, more water shortages, more inundated coastal cities, more disease and conflict, millions more suffering. At 3 to 5 degrees, all else being equal, sea levels will rise about 4 to 7.5 meters (13-24 feet). Deglaciation of the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise the ocean 5 meters more. These changes will unfold slowly and even halting emissions after 2020 won’t prevent what is already in the pipeline. The climate will continue to warm for several more centuries until it reaches its new equilibrium temperature based upon the changed chemistry. That could be at 7 degrees, 9 degrees, 12 degrees, we really don’t know. We just know it is a lot hotter than mammals like homo can tolerate. Bees gone, butterflies gone, birds gone, whales and dolphins gone, and then we’re gone too.

So here you are now, young Syrian. You can see what lies ahead. Where do you go to hide? What do you do to prepare?

We are all Syrians now.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
— Dylan Thomas, 1947

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

I think I just stopped being a feminist

Clemson’s Justyn Ross makes a one-handed catch in front of Alabama’s Josh Jobe during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Over the past two years I have been writing off and on about social cohesion, inspired in large measure by Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging and to a lesser extent by Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

I actually began writing about this subject many years ago, but back then it was more about cognitive science and why we as a species are so easily lured to deny peak oil, climate change, and ubiquitous ponzinomics.

When I wrote about synthetic fabrics in fashion a couple weeks ago, I fell back into a familiar analogy, probably stolen from Nate Hagens a decade or more back, of wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles. Not all the wildebeest make it, but most do. It is herd strategy, the same one we adopted as primates before we came down from the trees, if not earlier. 

The herd strategy is defensive and hard-wired. It pairs well with the MORT gene I described here after reading Anit Varki and Danny Brower’s paper in Nature in 2009, “Human uniqueness and the denial of death.”

Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind The history of science abounds with momentous theories that disrupted conventional wisdom and yet were eventually...

In Irmageddon, I wrote:
For reasons that have been well articulated now by cognitive scientists, human denial — a DNA-level defense mechanism — goes into overdrive when our survival is placed into jeopardy. Denial and existential climate threat are a stable pair.
In Rescuing Los Angeles, I wrote:
We continuously signal to others in our herd that we are with them. We are part. We are in this tribe. We seek tribe approval, acceptance, respect. We may do this the way birds do, with colorful plumage, or the way horses do, with speed and agility. A necktie or a pants suit are forms of that signaling. A sports car is another.
I have come to the conclusion that virtually all aspects of our existential predicament, if not all human problems, stem from these two unfortunate genes, tribe and denial. Separately, we might be able to cope with the consequences of either. Together, they are fatal to our kind, not to mention the collateral damage caused to the web of life as we ungracefully exit this brief experiment with human-level existence.

It is easily seen in political factions. Caitlin Johnstone observes:
Trump supporters are acting like he’s a swamp-draining, war-ending peacenik, his enemies are acting like he’s feeding a bunch of Kurds on conveyor belts into Turkish meat grinders to be made into sausages for Vladimir Putin’s breakfast, when in reality nothing has changed and may not change at all.
This battle of narratives, reinforced by normative and cognitive biases, is really no different than what happened in Buenos Aires in the run-up to the soccer game between arch-rivals Boca Junior and River Plate or can be seen in any US football stadium or Commonwealth rugby pitch on game day. It is not just the teams that are squaring off, it is the intensely loyal fans.

You can say team spirit is a good thing, and I gave an example when I wrote about my proto-ecovillage, The Farm, in The Ragweed Tribe. You can watch the Netflix series “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” based on the children's books by Daniel Handler, and have great sympathy and admiration for three orphan children who cling together through cascading miusfortune, but as my permaculture mentor Adam Turtle once said to me, “Family ain’t no account.” And he is right. Your family is just the luck of the draw. You could as easily be born to crackheads as Oxford scholars. What loyalty do you owe and what good or evil might that accomplish?

As much as I like to lionize the wisdom of indigenous peoples, I will be the first to acknowledge that a lot of cruel and horrid practices rippled through Native American societies for generations, entirely out of unchallenged and unchallengeable familial loyalty.

Last fall a friendly argument with a Cuban history professor in Havana grew heated when I asked what his thinking was on Che Guevara’s inability to resist the temptation to torture former torturers, including members of Batista’s Buró de Represión de Actividades Comunistas, that he held captive in the Forteleza La Cabaña. The professor vehemently denied Che would do such a thing, and gave me examples of extreme clemency, although I still find the testimony of survivors compelling. Tribal loyalty in Cuba runs very high and can cast even otherwise cautious scholars adrift on popular waves of myth and fable.
“Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become … ” 

Cuban poet and later Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Armando Valladares, described what going to La Cabaña meant:
For me, it meant 8,000 days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement and solitude, 8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being, 8,000 days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain, 8,000 days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart, 8,000 days of struggling so that I would not become like them.

“Like them” to Valladares meant the torturers who forced him to eat his own excrement because the Revolution did not approve of his poetry. To his tormenters the “they” were the counter-revolutionary intelligentsia that opposed communism on principle and would never see reason. Guevara, cleaving to the lineage of Cuban patron saints Martí, Bolivar, Humboldt and Hatuay, saw the enemy as anyone who would accept dictatorship by wealthy elites on the false promise they could aspire to become materially wealthy themselves. Both sides of this debate are profoundly wedded to ethical rectitude.

Nafeez Ahmed, pondering how humans managed to get themselves to such an existential precipice, writes:
If we take a moral or ethical value to be indicative of a particular mode or pattern of behaviour, we can conclude from our current civilisational predicament that the predominant value-system premised on self-maximisation through endless material accumulation is fundamentally flawed, out of sync with reality, and objectively counterproductive. Conversely, values we might associate with more collaborative and cooperative behaviours appearing to recognise living beings as interconnected, such as love, generosity and compassion (entailing behavioural patterns in which self-maximisation and concern for the whole are seen as complementary rather than conflictual), would appear to have an objective evolutionary function for the human species.
Sounds pretty communistic to me. If Ahmed were a Cuban under Batista he might be hunted down and shot. After La Revolución he might have become an Ambassador, or targeted by the CIA. Perhaps he is.

Ethical perches seem to me very fuzzy. If by feminism one means seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men or opposing harassment, domestic violence, genital mutilation and rape, then I am still down with that. But if by feminism one means taking into account only black or white, middle class, Christian and college-educated perspectives, while wishing to impose a dualistic view of gender (personally, I lean towards 12 human sexes, about a third as many as our evolutionary relatives, the basidiomycetes and ascomycetes), then count me out.

I would have liked to see Alabama beat Clemson (I am a big fan of fellow Hawai’ian Tua Tagovialoa and his Maori-style facepaint), but I can stand up and cheer with the Clemson crowd when I see Justyn Ross make an amazing one-handed catch. 

While I love my children and other relatives and hope they will care for me if or when I have need, I do hereby renounce any special obligation beyond garden-variety human compassion. I just wish it was not left, by evil design and an anti-socialist tribal narrative, to poor families to care for their elderly and infirm. That wicked policy defaults to discriminate against any of us who may not, by luck of that original draw or later events, have supportive families, and where is the compassion there?

Color me neither capitalist nor socialist, revolutionary nor reactionary, spiritual nor heretical (present essay notwithstanding), Angloamerican nor Irish, hippy nor square. I think the royal houses of Europe had it right when then undertook to intermarry, quixotically attempting to avert the horrors of whatever last war they just experienced. I find the multilateralism of the United Nations laudable and those who seek to undermine it despicable. Color me the universal human, whose only outward, or inward, symbol of membership in any tribe is my belly button.

From where the sun now stands I will tribe no more forever.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Becoming Plastic

"We can just equip these new monkeys with some silicon AI and have done with the slow and random variety of evolution."

‘Sometimes weird things hit a tipping point. For a combination of reasons, including a viral video showing a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, companies waged war on straws this year. Marriott, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, and the city of Seattle, among others, all banned or are phasing out straws. It was a very small part of a larger conversation about “single-use plastics,” most notably plastic bags, which IKEA and Taiwan are banning as well.’ 

In 2018, researchers studying the life cycle of mosquitoes uncovered a weird factoid. Microplastics can be transferred ontogenically (between life stages with distinct morphologies and requiring distinct environments) from a feeding (larval, aquatic) life stage into a non-feeding (pupal, edge-dwelling) life stage and subsequently into the flying (adult, airborne) life stage. The researchers were concerned that “any organism that feeds on terrestrial life phases of freshwater insects could be impacted by [microplastic] found in aquatic ecosystems.”

The mosquitoes also transmit those microplastics to hosts when they feed, meaning that if you have been exposed to mosquitoes, they may have left microplastics in your blood and organs.
Of course, that is not the only source of microplastics in your body. It is nearly impossible to take a prescription, or even use an over-the-counter vitamin, without encountering time-release coatings on capsules, plastic lids on plastic pill bottles, and even a (synthetic) cellophane wrap for tamper-proofing. Scientists tested 21 table salts and found plastic in all of them, most commonly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used to make plastic bottles. 100 percent of wild mussels sampled in supermarkets were found to contain microplastics. It is the same story for most seafood. 

National Institutes of Health scientist Antonia Calafat has done everything she can to raise the alarm. Her studies now show that microplastics in the blood of pregnant women cross the placental barrier and directly result in embryonic developmental disorders, gestational diabetes, decreased birth weight, allergic asthma and other respiratory problems in newborns. Worse, microplastics can be transmitted through mother’s milk, meaning that infants who may already be adversely impacted receive an even higher dose at a most critical period in their development.

A century of plastic design improvements now let us keep our foods fresher for longer periods, provide us timed-release pharmaceuticals and non-degrading biomedical implants, and can prevent electronics and other household items from starting or spreading fires. But for each of these benefits, there are counter-weighing human health risks related to exposure. We now know that some of the same chemicals used in plastics to provide beneficial qualities also act as endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) that lead to problems in human and other populations.

In men, environmental or occupational exposures to EDCs can lead to declined reproductive capacity or possibly increased risk of testicular or prostate cancer. In women, exposure may give an increased risk for endometriosis, reproductive and other endocrine-related cancers, or impaired oocyte competence, ovarian function or menstrual cycling. Effects of early life exposures may lead to altered sex differentiation, effects on neurological and reproductive development and increased risk of reproductive problems or cancer later in life. Testicular dysgenesis syndrome can afflict males in utero or in infancy, later showing up as disturbed gonadal development, including cryptorchidism, hypospadias and smaller reproductive organs, reduction in semen quality and infertility, and as an increased risk for testicular cancer.


The diesters of 1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid (phthalic acid), commonly known as phthalates, are a group of man-made chemicals widely used in industrial applications. High-molecular-weight phthalates are used as plasticizers in flexible vinyl which, in turn, is used in consumer products like credit cards, window frames, flooring and wall coverings, food containers and medical implants. Low-molecular-weight phthalates are in personal-care products (perfumes, lotions, and cosmetics) and in solvents, lacquers, varnishes and coatings. They are also used to provide timed releases in some oral and subdermal pharmaceuticals.

As a result of all these consumer products, human exposure is widespread. Skin contact is enough. For those identifying as men, it might come from cologne or after-shave. For those identifying as women, it might be from skin lotion or lipstick. For infants and children, mouthing fingers after handling plastic toys or food packaging can lead to higher phthalate exposures. So does breast milk, infant formula, and cow’s milk, according to studies. Opting for coconut, almond, or rice milk won’t save your child if that cardboard carton has a plastic liner or cap.

In newborns, the amount of phthalates in umbilical cord blood directly correlates to a risk of premature birth. Among girls, phthalate concentration correlates with premature breast development and early-onset puberty. Other developmental effects: allergies, rhinitis, asthmatic reactions and direct toxicity. In one case-control study from Sweden, phthalate concentrations in indoor dust in 198 children ages 3–8 years showed a strong association with allergic asthma and eczema in a dose-dependent manner. Another study in Bulgarian children produced similar results, where increased plastic in house dust proportionally related to wheezing and rhinitis. A study of pre-term infants provided polyvinyl chloride (PVC) respiratory tubing showed higher rates of hyaline membrane disease, likely from the phthalate exposure.

Significant associations have also been reported between urinary phthalate concentrations and increased insulin resistance and waist circumference. These findings provide preliminary evidence of a potential contributing role for phthalates in insulin resistance, obesity and related clinical conditions.

Bisphenol A

BPA is in the epoxy resins used to line food cans, older plastic baby bottles, some dental sealants and fillings, adhesives, protective coatings, flame retardants, water storage tanks and supply pipes. It starts out as part of a polymer, but with normal heat over time, it degrades into its small-chain monomeric form. In that form, BPA can leach from its source into adjacent materials such as water (in the case of bottles, pipes or tanks) or food products (such as from the lining of a can). There is widespread BPA lingering in body fluids, bones and organs of people. It can be found in over 90% of the US population, where 96% of pregnant women test positive for BPA in their urine. It is now in US women’s follicular fluid, amniotic fluid, umbilical cord blood, and breast milk.

BPA’s hormone-changing properties were known as early as 1936, and evidence for other biological activity such as effects on thyroid function soon followed. In one epidemiological study, serum BPA levels were reported to be associated with recurrent miscarriage. Investigators also reported higher rates of polycystic ovary syndrome. Multiple studies have associated BPA exposure with weight gain and linked it to insulin resistance, heart disease, diabetes, neurological disorders, thyroid dysfunction, cancer, genital malformations and more. However, most studies to date have only addressed single chemicals or classes of chemicals, and there are limited data on the interactions between chemicals within a class or across classes. Chemicals may interact additively, multiplicatively or antagonistically in what is commonly referred to as the “cocktail effect.”

The health effects of ingested plastics are not just limited to phthalates and BPA. We know of ill effects from esters of aromatic mono-, di-, and tricarboxylic acids, aromatic diacids, and di-, tri-, or polyalcohols, and many other additives and composite materials. The exploration of these medical effects is still in its infancy, and few governments have shown any willingness to disturb the marketplace until it is more clear which does what to whom.

You can tell the checkout clerk at the grocery store you won’t need a plastic bag because you brought your own reusable cloth bag, but you may find it difficult to avoid having skin contact with the plastic handle on the shopping cart or basket, the laminate on the checkout counter, the credit card in your wallet, or the shock-resistant cover on your mobile phone. You will likely be unable to do anything to prevent yourself from inhaling the hairspray the clerk used that morning, absorbing some of the tap water you use to rinse and prepare your fresh vegetables, or eating the microplastic particles contained in the food that got there from the air, soil, water or chemicals the plants were in contact with as they grew.

Of course, there is a solution to all this, one that science fiction writers have mused about for most of a century now. We could just sit back and let it happen.

We are plasticizing, metamorphosing into something more enduring than flesh and bone. Wasn't that the whole point about plastics to begin with — durability? With climate change destroying our food supply, water contaminated with radionuclides, lead and estrogen, and temperatures soon to pass tolerable thresholds for higher mammalian life, we can just equip these new monkeys with some silicon AI and have done with the slow and random variety of evolution. We can take charge of all that, right?

This essay is adapted from my new book due out this year, Transforming Plastic: From Pollution to Evolution (Book Publishing Company, 2019). You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


"Evolution dropped a dual-hemi into the drivetrain of a fecund nomad, injected Nitro and walked away."

JUST ABOUT 72 years ago my mother was taxied from our home on Aukai Street to the Kapiolani Gynecological Hospital so that doctors and nurses there could help bring me into the world. On New Year’s Day 1947, the ward was a pretty busy scene with 13 of us new islanders choosing that day to be born. Babies ready? … Boom! This is me in the upper left corner of Sunday’s Honolulu Advertiser, obviously not all that happy to be being photographed.

Honolulu Advertiser, January 5, 1947
The other big news that day was the weather. Hawaii had been pounded all week by a storm that drove 40-foot waves against the coast and sent tide waters sweeping 1000 yards inland. Maui Harbor was wrecked and parts of Hilo had to be evacuated. In Alaska, the 135-mph gale was the unprecedented third blast of that winter for Nome. On the mainland, a cold front invaded the South into Florida and extended clear all the way over to the valleys of California.

On page 7 of the Advertiser, John Wayne is shown boarding the first Hawaii Airlines passenger flight from Los Angeles to Hilo. A transpacific route to Kwajalein, Guam and Tokyo was being surveyed. In Washington, Republicans were flooding Congressional hoppers with anti-strike bills to keep unions from recovering their pre-war bargaining power. In other news, Bernard Baruch was resigning his chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission, having devised a plan to place peaceful atomic energy under international control. Under the Baruch plan, soon to be adopted by the United Nations, the world would disarm its nuclear arsenal and all nations would agree never to build any more. A strict inspection regime would guarantee the peaceful atom would be forever safely caged.

Having acquired 7 decades of hindsight, it is easy to look back at some of these pronouncements with grim humor.

Selection could have favored other quadrupeds with hands, such as raccoons or geckos, but the spinning wheel landed on apes. Evolution could have, and perhaps did, supply more powerful brain engines to marine mammals, but it dropped a dual-hemi into the drivetrain of a fecund nomad, injected Nitro and walked away.

That bicameral brain evaporated the track in a parsec but see that smoke coming from under the hood? We need to eject. Except someone forgot to put that feature in.

That’s the thing about our neurobiology. It has a problem with looking very far into the future. We could, but we avert our eyes. Instead we discount future against present. Nate Hagens, who has thought long about the larger evolutionary patterns, writes:
To change people’s minds about behavior you have to either make the case really scary, or the time-to-impact really short because of people’s evolved tendency to focus on the present (and cultures impact on causing discount rates to be even steeper). For most Americans, ‘the future’ is this weekend. Climate change is real (as are myriad other environmental externalities), but if people are losing jobs and have to worry about feeding their kids, concern about the natural world will take a back seat to more mundane realities.
Nature abhors a gradient. Life requires one. Possessing gradients, and throttling them to create islands of low entropy while global entropy rises, is the very essence of life. Those organisms that are most effective in accessing and degrading energy have had evolutionary advantage. This includes human societies. For us to voluntarily give up or reduce access to the highest quality fuels goes against our evolutionary grain for ‘more’ or ‘progress.’ Reducing consumption via top-down authority is possible (think Tokugawa Japan) but extremely unlikely. Our modern history is one of doing everything in our power to keep continued global access to high EROI fuels possible.
Declining energy productivity (lower aggregate EROI), instead of causing a belt-tightening in the 1970s, caused us to go to debt to continue high levels of consumption. That led to lower and lower debt productivity (less and less GDP per additional $ of debt), to the point that central banks had to take over the model. In the US, our economy, ex-government, stopped growing in 2005. China, Russia, Brazil, etc are following the exact same model (plummeting debt-to-productivity). So we added government debt to offset declining private growth. Once debt productivity goes below zero (as it is currently in the US and probably in many European countries), we are simply transmuting wealth into income–and the timeline of being able to continue that strategy becomes very short, irrespective of oil prices.
In recent weeks oil prices fell to their lowest since mid-2017 with London futures closing at $53.82 and New York at $45.59. The Peak Oil Review says:
Some observers are calling the situation a “bloodbath” for shale oil producers noting that at $45 a barrel or lower, nearly all the independent shale oil producers are losing a substantial amount on nearly every barrel they produce.

Exxon Mobil has become the biggest fracker in West Texas. TPOR reports:
The company says its shale wells can make double-digit returns with oil at just $35 a barrel. Nearly all of the companies concentrating on shale oil drilling seem to be losing money at $45 a barrel. While Exxon can hide any losses in shale oil among its massive production of conventional oil, it will be interesting to see if it will be so efficient that it will make money where others have failed. Exxon is coming late to shale oil, and many of the best locations have already been drilled. Moreover, Exxon is subject to the same problems of moving oil to markets and shortages of workers and other infrastructure in the region. Exxon’s CEO Darren Woods, however, expects strong growth through 2025 when he’s expecting to produce much as 800,000 b/d from the Permian and the Bakken Basins.
This contrasts with California’s recent announcement that it will be winding down oil production in that state owing to heightened awareness of climate change. It is losing entire towns to uncontrollable fires. That tends to get people’s attention.

The neurobiological discount rate for climate change may be working for Californians but apparently not for Texans. Nor does it seem to work for most USAnians when it comes to understanding national debt, GDP, Fed interest rates, or the hole being dug so deep into the balance sheet that Congress is cashing in National Parks to fund another continuing resolution.

California Governor Jerry Brown steps down next week at age 80 after four terms in office. Earlier this month he told the Seymour Tribune:
“The threat of nuclear annihilation and climate change on a permanent basis looms, and therefore it is time for new leaders to rise up and make the case and mobilize the people for what needs to be done. What needs to be done is unprecedented, and therein lies the dilemma.”
For me, at 72, near-term human extinction is a foregone conclusion. I will likely be out of here before the worst parts of that fate beset us. I just pity the children arriving this New Year to the maternity wing at Kapiolani.


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Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Fabrics of Society

"Yoga pants are destroying the Earth"

Reet Aus
We know to avoid plastics because they are made of non-renewable fossil fuels, they are not biodegradable, and they leach hormones and toxic chemicals. What many of us are unaware of is that plastics make up the fabric of our everyday life. Look down at your shoes, socks, and pants. Do you know what the fabric composition of your clothes is? Look at your rug, your couch, your bed, and the sheets on it. Do you know what they’re made out of? Chances are they’re plastic, or at least part plastic.

Synthetic clothing, including polyester, polyamide, nylon, and acrylic, is very cheap to make and very bad for you and other living things. Because of its low price tag, it is tempting to buy, and retailers and manufacturers may even make it hard for you to choose otherwise. They hide plastic microfibers in budget-friendly fabrics called ‘blends.’

Synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester shed thousands of microscopic fibers with each wash cycle. After scientists started showing how these fibers end up on your dinner plate after passing through little fish to bigger fish, newspapers ran articles with headlines such as “Yoga pants are destroying the Earth.” Seizing the moment, eco-conscious brands began selling a washing-machine pellet, claimed to catch “some” of the plastic sloughing off clothing (Patagonia calls theirs ‘Guppyfriend’). Stephen Buranyi, writing for The Guardian, lamented,
“It slips through our fingers and our water filters and sloshes into rivers and oceans like effluent from a sinister industrial factory. It is no longer embodied by a Big Mac container on the side of the road. It has come to seem more like a previously unnoticed chemical listed halfway down the small print on a hairspray bottle, ready to mutate fish or punch a hole in the ozone layer.”
One-third of fish caught in the North Atlantic are contaminated with microplastic. It is even found in benthic animals living thousands of meters below the sea surface. Eighty-three percent of drinking water samples from around the world are contaminated with plastic fibers. While not all of it, quite a lot of this contamination of fresh and saltwater comes when synthetic fiber-based clothing is worn and washed.

It won’t help you if you decide that rather than throw your clothes in the washing machine you will take them all to be dry cleaned. The most common dry cleaning solvent is PCE (perchloroethylene), As Camille Scheidt reveals, “there are no perks to perc.”
“Once the solvent vaporizes, it is easily inhaled. Because of this, both dry cleaning employees and customers are directly at risk of breathing in the chemical. The dangers of perc are not isolated to the dry cleaning facility. Perc can follow you home. The chemical remains in dry-cleaned clothing long after it leaves the cleaner and the levels of perc in the garment will accumulate with each cleaning process. But, as you just learned, the perc doesn’t just stay in your clothing, it off-gases. A study found that if you were to put four freshly dry-cleaned sweaters in your car and step into the grocery store for an hour on a warm day, you would return to a car that was well exceeding the safe limit of perc exposure….
“But perc pollution reaches much further than your home and car. The contaminant has been detected in groundwater and both public and private wells. It’s also found in soil. Perc can become airborne from soil and water, and once in the air can be inhaled. The effect of perc on our bodies is severe. Short-term exposure at low levels can cause inebriation, dizziness, and irritation in the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and respiratory tract. Short-term exposure to perc at high levels can cause fluid buildup in lungs, difficulty speaking and walking, headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of skin and the respiratory system. If a person’s exposure to perc is at a high level, even for a short time, the chemical can cause unconsciousness and death.
“Prolonged exposure to perc can result in damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. It is recognized as a probable human carcinogen and linked to cases of cervical cancer, bladder cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 2007, it was estimated that 1 in 10 wells in California were contaminated with perc.”
Fashion, unlike many other aspects of the plastic problem, is something consumers can change both thoroughly and rapidly. Besides producing and buying fabrics that last longer and can be recycled, they can purchase clothing made from organically-produced materials that naturally biodegrade, such as cotton, silk, linen, and wool. They can wash only when the clothes, especially outerwear, absolutely require it. They also have to be aware, when they are buying, not to purchase blends. Many fabrics can be recycled, even acrylics, but if it requires the entire structure be disassembled, thread by thread, remanufacturers may shy away.

Petroplastic fabrics are something we can, and must, refuse. Surely we can replace these with safer, healthier bio-based and biodegradable natural analogs? Finland’s bioeconomy has expanded on the strength of its forests. New developments in the fabric industry there will extend the value chain of forest-biomass to cellulose-based non-woven textiles, estimated to reach 47.7 billion euros in 2020.
“Cellulose fibers can be utilized in all textiles that can replace cotton and viscose which both have sustainability issues related to their production. Government strategy in Finland aims to double the current bioeconomy turnover from 60 billion euros to 100 billion euros before 2025,” says Tuula Savola, Program Manager of Business Finland’s BioNets program.

On the horizon in the rest of the world are new fabrics that provide a better experience and range of qualities than synthetics and blends. These include sustainably-harvested cork fabric as an alternative to leather; fish skin; mushroom “skin” (the capskin from Phellinus ellipsoideus, native to subtropical forests); pellemela, sustainably sourced from discarded apple peels and core waste from juiced apples; Piñatex® from pineapple processing waste; Orange Fiber yarn and silks; TENCEL® from beech and eucalyptus; and UV, mold and mildew resistant, naturally antimicrobial, absorbent and durable hemp.

Confronting Plastic Culture

Plastic culture is another matter. At the end of 2018, the Club of Rome issued this warning:
“The prevailing mantra that all economic growth is good defies the reality of life on a finite planet with finite resources. There is an urgent need for new economic thinking and new indicators that value quality as well as quantity in our economic metrics.”
Since most of the qualities we seek in plastic products can be found in biodegradable bioplastics, all we need to do is to change the economic metrics — how value is assigned. In many ways that realignment dovetails neatly with what is required to arrest and reverse climate change. Here are portions of the roadmap proposed by the Club of Rome, which I have amended slightly to include plastics:
  • Introduce realistic pricing and taxation to reflect the actual cost of fossil fuel use and embedded carbon;
  • Introduce carbon (or non-green plastic) floor prices;
  • Tax embedded carbon (or non-green plastic) through targeted sales taxes;
  • Fund research, development, and innovation;
  • Converge carbon (and green plastic) markets and instruments into a worldwide structure;
  • Replace GDP growth as the primary objective for societal progress;
  • Adopt new indicators — such as the Genuine Progress Indicator — that accurately measure human development, welfare and wellbeing, rather than production growth;
  • Establish explicit funding and re-training programmes for displaced workers and communities;
  • Provide government assistance to enable older industries to diversify to lower carbon (and green plastic) production;
  • Reframe business models and roles for declining industries such as oil, gas, and coal;
  • Create an international convention, applying to nations and non-state actors alike, with legally enforceable rules and mechanisms for policing the global commons;
  • Support citizen action and litigation against countries and actors exceeding legal limits;
  • Require that market prices reflect the real costs of production, integrating social, environmental and ecosystem values into pricing;
  • Ensure greater materials efficiency and circularity by 2025;
  • Actively support efforts to restore degraded lands and water through methods such as open ocean plastics recovery and Ecosystem Regeneration Camps;
  • Recognize that the degree of social change needed to make a successful transformation to a sustainable future will extend throughout society, requiring fundamental shifts in behavior and rethinking of national and community support and care systems.
For more than a quarter-century, world leaders, scientists, and expert advisers have been meeting to try to do something about climate change and the other tragedies of the commons, first chronicled in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study in 1972. After all these conferences and meetings we have international treaties like the conventions on Biodiversity, Deforestation and Desertification, and The Paris Agreement on climate change. But what has not changed is the trajectory of the crisis or the common understanding of interconnection and reciprocity. Rather than preserving biodiversity and forests, we are well into a Sixth Great Extinction event, losing forest cover, and desertifying faster than ever before. Rather than moving towards carbon neutrality, greenhouse gases are still growing, and the rate of yearly emissions even accelerated from 2016 to 2018.

Our problem seems to be the inertia of bad decisions made in the past. But humans can and do change their patterns of living, and that can most readily be seen in the world of fashion.

A few years ago I was teaching a Permaculture Design Course in Estonia when one of my students asked if fashion had a role in permaculture. She was fashion designer Reet Aus. Most mass-production manufacturers send about 18% of pre-consumer textiles as scrap to landfill or incinerator. Her Ph.D. dissertation was “Trash to Trend: Using Upcycling in Fashion Design” which opened up new possibilities within the fashion industry. Since 2002, Aus has been upcycling — turning unwanted materials into new, mass-produced garments. Her Bangladeshi partners source floor cuttings from Tommy Hilfiger, Bershka, Calvin Klein and Zara to add into her latest designs.

Her collection, including a treasured shirt of mine, is entirely from post-production leftovers. She keeps proving that clever design can salvage mountains of wasted textiles and the labor and natural resources spent to produce them, usually inside the same factory. Each garment in her line will save on average 75% in water and 88% in energy. She also improves the working conditions of the shops she helps in Bangladesh.

“In my opinion, we should keep oil-based fabrics in the loop as long as possible,” she told me recently. “Clothing in this area not the biggest problem but we can just stop making fabric from oil. We have a lot of good alternatives from algae to cellulose.”

Aus has tapped into an element of human nature that has led to our present predicament but could also point to the way out. It is not science or technology that confounds us from rejoining Earth’s ecology; it is social behavior.

As can be seen in zebras or wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles, herding is a rational defense strategy. Bunching herds protect their majority from predators, although a few will be lost to the needs of the river dwellers. Millions of years ago, our ape ancestors adopted herd strategy over lone individualism and it has served us well. Our fads and fashions are not optional — they are hard-wired to our genetic code. When we choose to wear a necktie and blazer, or a pants suit with jewelry and heels, we are signaling membership in a particular band. The cars we drive, the places we live, the foods we eat — all signals of belonging to one specific tribe.

Tribal instincts towards personal sacrifice are ennobling, unifying, heroic. In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger writes:
“The human conscience evolved in the middle to late Pleistocene as the result of the hunting of large game. This required cooperative, band level sharing of meat. Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can quickly shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group or the food supply are often countered by coalitions of other males.
“This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.”
Fashion is how we signal not merely tribal allegiance but the values we share. When we choose to go plastic-free, whether in our clothing or the packaging and transportation of the things we exchange, we signal membership in the next order of humans on Earth: Homo regenesis.

This essay is adapted from my new book due out next year, Protecting our Future: Plastics (Book Publishing Company, 2019). You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.




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